A word from the president: The importance of being counted

By: Margie Brown, CIRI president and CEO

Rural Alaska made headlines in January when Inupiaq elder and World War II veteran Clifton Jackson of the Northwest Arctic village of Noorvik became the first American to complete the 2010 census. U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Grove flew to the village in February to interview Jackson and personally launch the 2010 census. By starting early in Alaska, census takers hoped to catch rural residents before they head out for spring hunting and move to fish camps for summer subsistence activities.

Census questionnaires will be mailed to all U.S. residents on March 19. The census questionnaire consists of 10 questions, which should take only about 10 minutes to complete. In addition to mailing out questionnaires to every household, census workers also attempt to personally deliver questionnaires to every home or living place in the country, from cities and suburbs to rural areas and remote cabins.

CIRI has joined other public organizations and private businesses in Anchorage to promote awareness of the importance of completing the questionnaires. The Municipality of Anchorage’s Complete Count Committee’s goal is to bring together tribal, business and community organizations to brainstorm how to promote the 2010 census. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, whose department is charged with conducting the census, met with the Committee to launch the effort and discuss strategies for the coming year. The Committee plans to meet and conduct outreach from now until fall.

The U.S. Constitution mandates a head count of every person residing in the United States every 10 years, including people of all ages, ethnic backgrounds and citizens and non-citizens. The 2010 census officially began in February and the Census Bureau must present updated state population totals to President Obama by Dec. 31, 2010.

An accurate census count is critically important because it determines how more than $400 billion per year in state and federal funding to states and communities is allocated. The funding supports everything from public health to education, transportation and other community needs.

Government officials also use census figures to determine voting districts, school districts and Congressional representation. One aspect of the census of particular importance in Alaska will be to shed light on the movement of people from rural Alaska to towns and cities. Through the 2010 census, we hope to learn whether the anecdotal information on the increased number of people moving from rural Alaska to urban Alaska is true. Accurate census data will determine where money will be allocated to best serve Alaskans.

People unfamiliar with the census process can be wary of strangers coming to their door – especially if there is a language barrier. To allay these concerns, the Census Bureau has worked extensively with ethnic communities to educate people about the process and encourage them to complete and return the questionnaires. In Alaska, in addition to launching the count in Noorvik and networking with tribes, the regions and Alaska Native nonprofits, the Census Bureau has encouraged communities to hold special events on April 1, Census Day.

In Alaska, some 2,500 census workers will cover 586,000 square miles to personally visit households and dwelling places across the state. Reaching Alaskans, especially in rural areas will be challenging. There are challenges in towns and cities as well. Census workers must also attempt to find homeless Alaskans who live in tent cities and vehicles or who “couch surf” with relatives and friends. Determining where these Alaskans, seasonal workers and subsistence users live “most of the time” for counting purposes will help provide an accurate picture of whether, and how, Alaska’s population has shifted in the past 10 years.

The importance of being counted cannot be overstated, and I urge all to participate in the 2010 census. Our communities rely heavily on state and federal funding to provide public services and infrastructure. In urban areas, Alaska Native nonprofit service organizations, such as CIRI’s affiliated nonprofit service providers, use public funds to deliver health care, social service and other needs. Having an accurate count of our population helps to assure that these needs will be met.