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Online Census Could Miss Many Native Americans on Tribal Lands

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When the 2020 census gets underway in April, it won’t be with the traditional questionnaires in the mail. Instead, for the first time, most households will receive an invitation to participate in the census online.

The switch is billed by the Census Bureau as both a technological innovation and a cost-saving measure. But it could leave communities with limited internet access significantly under-counted.

That is a major concern for Native American communities on tribal lands. The Federal Communications Commission has estimated that about two thirds of residents of tribal lands have access to broadband internet.

“If they define Internet access as a data plan on a phone then I would say that number is probably close to true,” said Matt Rantanen, Director of Technology for Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association. “The problem is you can't fill out a census form on your phone accurately.”

Native Americans have historically been under-represented in the census. An audit of the 2010 census found that one in seven Native Americans not counted.

That is, in part, due to distrust of the government.

“Traditionally, when we were counted, we were eliminated,” Rantanen said.

When it comes to an online census, government distrust may be compounded by data privacy concerns.

Rantanen says there has also been a lack of understanding of the benefits of being counted – over a billion dollars a year in government funding for housing, road construction, employment and training programs. But there is growing recognition of the importance of being included in the census.

“You have the traditional ‘I don't want to be counted group,’ but you have those folks that that are online and are willing to be counted,” said Rantanen. “And then you have all of the people that don't have any access, don't have access to maybe even a vehicle to get to a local library to be able to be counted online.”

All told, Rantanen predicts that Native Americans living on tribal lands will be under-counted by an additional thirty percent or more in 2020.

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.