"Taos County ranks among the most challenging places in the country to get an accurate census count," said Veronica Arzate, senior partnership specialist at the U.S. Census Bureau. "There were 12,000 residents - over a third of the county - who didn't submit the questionnaire in 2010."
Arzate, who heads the bureau's outreach effort for New Mexico, teamed up Monday evening (Oct. 7) with Paige Best, the state's census coordinator, to present at a community forum hosted by the Taos County Democrats.
Fortunately, the U.S. Census Bureau pursues even the most resistant residents relentlessly. After a massive - and costly - followup effort, they managed to track down and record information for all but 700 of those 12,000 nonresponders. "But missing even 700 can make a big difference when it comes to allocating federal funding," said Best.
The two have their work cut out for them. It could prove even more challenging to get an accurate count this time around, due to fear of the current administration's anti-immigrant policies and ongoing Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids. While a federal judge struck down the White House's order in July of this year to include a citizenship question on the 2020 questionnaire, it has likely increased the sense of uncertainty among undocumented residents.
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Arzate stressed that the Census Bureau, while it's a federal agency, guards the confidentiality of all information it gathers from other government branches such as ICE and the Internal Revenue Service. By law, it can release such data to other agencies only after 72 years.
"For those who are concerned about the internet, we've installed 16 layers of security in our online questionnaire," Arzate said. "Do you know how many layers banks use? Only 12."
Because the census will be conducted primarily online this time, there's concern that it will present challenges for elderly residents as well as for off-the-gridders - both of which represent large segments of the Taos County population.
But if you lack a computer or mailing address, the 2020 census will offer a toll-free 800 number as well. If you have trouble with English, you can select from a wide variety of languages; a live human being will come on and record your responses to the 10 questions.
Arzate and Best's mission is to make residents feel at ease with participating - but also to make them aware of how much their community stands to gain by ensuring that everyone gets counted and described accurately.
"We try to explain it in terms of political representation, of making sure our voices are heard," she said. "And if we don't all participate fully in the census, we will likely miss out on critical funding for our schools, our health care, our infrastructure."
Arzate has 12 partnership specialists working for her. Two will cover the northern region of the state and two will focus solely on tribal communities. "Since the tribal counts are government-to-government transactions, we use a different protocol," she said. "They also require a deeper level of cultural awareness to help tribal members understand the importance of being counted."
If you don't respond to the online questionnaire, which will be posted on the bureau's website on March 13, 2020, you'll receive postcards in the mail to remind you. If you don't do so after the third postcard, you'll receive the traditional paper questionnaire in the mail.
If you don't return the questionnaire, or return it only partially filled out, a live human being will come knocking at your door.
As one of the poorest states in the union, New Mexico relies more than most on federal aid for its assistance programs. It's therefore critical that every New Mexican gets counted.
There's the Title 1 program, for example, which provides federal aid to economically disadvantaged school districts. If you don't include all children who live in your household - of whatever age - the Taos County school districts could lose out on Title 1 funds.
Children under 5 years old tend to be the most undercounted, especially infants. Counting them is important. "Within a couple of years, your baby will be needing vaccinations, day care or pre-K education," said Best.
But it's also important that you count each child only once. If you share custody with an ex-spouse, make sure the two of you figure out who's going to count the kids on their questionnaire. If they're staying with you on April 1, 2020, include them as a member of your household.