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WASHINGTON — Native American advocates ranging from the National Congress of American Indians to the Association on American Indian Affairs are taking the U.S. Census Bureau to task for not including Indigenous pandemic-related economic statistics in several new national analyses.

Also expressing concern are former Biden transition team staff, respected Native-focused researchers, and federal lawmakers who all called it inexcusable that the Census Bureau failed to include American Indian and Alaska Native poverty, income and health insurance data in the latest reports.

The frustration began building on Sept. 14, when the Census Bureau released three reports indicating that the median U.S. household income in 2020 decreased 2.9 percent from its 2019 level, while the official poverty rate increased by 1 percent. (Government pandemic relief efforts have been widely cited as an explanation for why these numbers were not much more dire.) At the same, the agency reported that 28 million Americans, or 8.6 percent, did not have health insurance at any point during 2020.

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The reports and an accompanying press release indicated that non-Hispanic Whites, Blacks, Hispanics and Asians were all included in the analyses.

The reports offered no substantive details — no facts at all — about American Indians or Alaska Natives. 

The oversight was jarring, according to many Native advocates, because the Census Bureau in August released numbers indicating a surge in American Indians nationwide. According to its 10-year survey, the American Indian and Alaska Native population grew by 160 percent since 2010 to 9.7 million citizens. 

However, the increased number of citizens did not equate to more Native inclusion in the reports at hand.

“It is extremely disheartening and continues to show the trend to put Indigenous people last on the list when it suits,” Clara Pratte, a tribal consultant with Strongbow Strategies LLC and a former Biden campaign staffer and transition team member, told Tribal Business News. “Our government needs and must do better. This is especially important when we look at the disparate economic outcomes we see across our populations and the implications of such indicators.” 


Agency chose not to include Native data

When asked why American Indians and Alaska Natives (AIAN) weren’t included in the research, Veronica Vaquer, a spokeswoman for the Census Bureau, shared tables showing that the agency did indeed collect the data for American Indians and Alaska Natives. However, it chose not to release the information in its reports, or to highlight it in its press releases.

Vaquer said via e-mail that the tables were based on surveys that do “not necessarily (have) a big enough group to get a large enough sample size for some populations such as AIAN.” 

Despite the issue of sample size, the data could offer comparable calculations, Vaquer explained after conferring with experts in her office.  

To calculate American Indian and Alaska Native economic numbers for 2020, one would have to look at several of the agency’s tables and average “across years due to small sample size,” Vaquer said. 

In place of that, Vaquer said, one could use either one-year or five-year American Community Survey (ACS) data from the agency, “but with the caveat that we don’t have 2020 ACS data due to challenges from the pandemic. Instead we will be releasing experimental estimates.” 

Vaquer followed up, noting again: “It is possible to produce these estimates for the AIAN population by consolidating multiple years of data. The Census Bureau has released tables with these data.” She also pointed to a webinar the agency held in April on Native data, although that webinar was held months before the current reports were released and seems focused on unrelated topics.

In other words, the Census Bureau says it could have calculated poverty, income and health insurance data for American Indians and Alaska Natives for 2020, as it did for all other major racial groups, but it chose not to. 

Instead, its official guidance is for people outside the agency to do their own calculations to gain insight on the Native population, using the explanation provided by Vaquer.

If the Census Bureau knew how to obtain an estimate for Native numbers for 2020, as Vaquer’s response indicates, the common-sense question from Native advocates is why the agency didn’t just do the more rigorous calculations.

“I think that is horrible that, even though the U.S. Census is collecting the data, they are not analyzing it or sharing it. Then what is the point?” Shannon O’Loughlin, chief executive of the Association on American Indian Affairs, told Tribal Business News.

“As a U.S. agency, the first priority is sharing that data with Native nations, and work collaboratively — and in consultation — with Indian Country to analyze and share data that all of us have paid for,” O’Loughlin said. “This information can assist all of us to do better for Indian Country, so it makes no sense that the U.S. Census would not be working collaboratively with Indian Country.”

Dante Desiderio, CEO of the National Congress of American Indians, further told Tribal Business News in an email: “With the increase in the AI/AN population in the 2020 Census, more disaggregation of federal data must occur to better understand the unique issues and challenges facing AI/AN communities.”

Lynn Malerba, chief of the Mohegan Tribe who often works with federal agencies on financial and statistical issues, was left puzzled as to why the Census Bureau simply didn’t do the Native calculations for its reports, since it has collected data that would have allowed it to do so. 

“You can still make some educated assumptions regarding statistics even if there is a small sample and just reference the margin of error,” Malerba noted.


Breach of trust responsibilities

Beyond the question of why the Census Bureau didn’t perform the calculations, Vaquer pointed to other reasons that the agency has had a difficult time researching Native topics. 

“Funding constraints, the significant increase in burden on AIAN households, and concerns about protecting respondent confidentiality are real considerations as we look for solutions to this issue,” she said.

However, these excuses rang hollow to several Native advocates. 

“I am not sure what the burden is on American Indians and Alaskan Natives for responding to a survey, and if the Census Bureau is not funded to do this work, why not?” Malerba asked. “How does OMB and Congress live up to their trust and treaty obligations if they don’t understand what our communities look like?”

“Lastly, confidentiality is always a concern, particularly with small tribes in states with few tribes that could be potentially identified given the small numbers,” Malerba added. “I understand that, but in that case, why not aggregate data by region?”

Pratte added that if the analyses were too time consuming to do given current resources, the Census Bureau needs to make appropriate requests of legislators and budgeters to ensure the system serves all Americans. 

“We are tired of being last on the list when it counts and first to be courted when it suits,” Pratte said.

Miriam Jorgensen, research director for the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona and for its sister program, the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, told Tribal Business News that if we all don’t have a good idea of the numbers for Native poverty, income and health insurance, tribes and legislators are not well positioned to identify the best ways to address Native people’s economic and social needs. 

“At present, the entity best positioned to provide this information is the Census Bureau, and thus, it should do its best to provide the data,” Jorgensen said. “It is surely true that the Census Bureau’s budget is limited, but in my view, it’s also the case that by not producing these data, the U.S. government fails to fulfill its trust responsibility. 

“In other words, without consistently collected and reliable data that provides needed information about Native nations and Native people, the U.S. government isn’t in good position to appropriately support and fund their treaty promises and trust responsibilities. Arguably, some rethinking of budget priorities at the Census is in order.”


At risk of falling short

Legislators are certainly paying attention, especially as a result of funding under the CARES Act, the American Rescue Plan and other pandemic aid to tribes. 

Alaska Republican Congressman Don Young recently took the Departments of the Interior and Labor to task for failing to produce a long overdue American Indian Population and Labor Force Report. He’s now turning his focus to the Census Bureau.

“The Census is one of the most important tools we have to take the country’s pulse and understand a broad cross-section of Americans. Congress allocates significant amounts of funding according to Census data,” Young told Tribal Business News. “To make good public policy, we must prioritize accurate, thorough data.”

“Given Alaska's unique geography, I understand the Census’ difficulty in collecting accurate data in our state,” said Young, the ranking member of the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States. “But we must continue doing everything we can to hold the Census Bureau to its promise of better data collection, particularly among Indigenous people.” 

“The COVID-19 pandemic shined a light on just how complicated it can be to carry out data collection. As we drafted relief bills such as the CARES Act, understanding Alaska Native and Native American populations’ unique needs was crucially important,” Young added. “Native communities were hit especially hard by the pandemic, and without proper data, policymakers risk unemployment, health care, and other relief provisions falling short for Indigenous communities.” 

Young said that “we cannot allow any federal agency to fall back on the excuse that carrying out duties that serve their official purpose is too onerous.” While the pandemic made the 2020 Census harder to carry out, that doesn’t mean legislators weren’t willing to work with the agency to find a solution by extending deadlines and bolstering resources, he added.

“But at some point, the Census Bureau must redouble their own efforts to collect this vital data,” Young said. “Indigenous people in our country have unique social and economic needs, and all levels of government, including the Census Bureau, must be doing their part to uphold our commitment to them.”


‘A form of erasure’

Many Native advocates note the current issue is not a new one. The Census Bureau has perennially underserved Indigenous populations, and people like Yvette Roubideaux at NCAI and Randall Akee and Desi Small-Rodriguez at the University of California at Los Angeles have all been pressing the agency to do better.

In O’Loughlin’s assessment, improving tribal data collection is ultimately a matter of sovereignty. 

“Native nations know best on how to collect data for their citizens,” she said. “We also understand that the U.S. Census will never be able to do what we need them to do.”

Added O’Loughlin: “Internal data collection can provide data to help individual tribes develop their own strategic plans for the future that include housing development, infrastructure needs and economic development and job growth. A tribe’s specific data can also support tribal courts, intervention programs, and youth alternatives to school suspension and juvenile detention, foster care and adoption needs, and other social services.

“Indian Country must have access to what data the government has collected — and should also determine for itself what data is important for the safety, health and welfare of the tribe.”

On this point, Jorgensen at the Native Nations Institute said it would be ideal to have statistics that are produced by Native nations and Native organizations themselves. 

“Yet while satisfying from the standpoint of Indigenous control, such an arrangement also raises daunting capacity and transparency issues: Each tribe and Native community would have to have the capacity to collect and store information in ways that made it possible to accurately aggregate the data for national policy making, and each would have to agree to share — and potentially reveal — data for those purposes,” she said. 

“Absent such mechanisms and agreements, Census data is the best we have, and yet, Census is falling down in serving Native nations and Native people. It’s a form of erasure.”