Census field workers have started delivering packets to households that don’t have an official postal address, which includes most household in rural Alaska. Jeff Enos is the Regional Deputy Chief of the U.S. Census Bureau, based in Los Angeles.
Enos says that that 38 percent of Alaskans have self-responded to the census. Those are mostly people living in cities like Anchorage and Juneau, and forms were delivered in the mail to their homes. As for the Native villages in rural Alaska, he says that the bureau was about two-thirds of the way to counting that population by going door to door, but that effort was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The process resumed this week.
“We’re expecting to see a big increase in the response over the next few weeks," Enos said.
Enos says that it’s important to fill out the census form because it’s used to distribute power in our democracy. The data is used to estimate the amount of representation for people in both Congress and the state legislature.
“And also in local communities across the state, representation is determined by the census count. That’s the first big thing is power; representation," Enos said.
The other big issue is money and resources. The proportion of state and federal money, and programs for communities, is often based on census data.
“So when individuals don’t fill out their census form, don’t participate in the census, their community could be underfunded," Enos said.
The questions on the form include one asking people to say which tribe they are part of. Enos says that how you answer that question impacts the share of tribal funding allocated to your tribe.
“So that when funding is distributed based on those populations, it is accurate," Enos said.
To help keep both the census workers safe and to protect the communities they are working in, the Census Bureau uses people already in the community to do the fieldwork. Even in Bethel, no one was brought in from outside the city to work on the census.
The government is also providing protective masks for its field workers to use while making their rounds, but those masks have yet to get to many communities, including Bethel.
“Yeah, there was a little bit of a delay, and we received it actually in our Anchorage office yesterday, and it’s being shipped out today," Enos said.
Enos says that the Census Bureau told it field staff to use their own masks until the federal government got its supplies out to them. The masks are expected to arrive in Bethel May 7.