A word from the president: Alaska Native participation in Census matters

By: Margie Brown, CIRI president and CEO

Census Bureau officials say they plan to start their count of U.S. residents here in Alaska next January. April 1 is census day for most of the country, but census takers want to start early in remote Alaska to avoid spring break-up and catch villagers before they leave their communities to hunt, fish and start other summertime activities.

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 and culture groups, citizens and non-citizens. The next count is in 2010, and the Census Bureau must submit updated state population totals to President Obama by Dec. 31, 2010.

To perform this count, census bureau workers will attempt to either mail or personally deliver questionnaires to every home or living place in the country, from urban and suburban houses and apartments to remote villages and cabins located miles from the nearest roadway.

Census counts are important because they are used to allocate more than $300 billion per year in federal and state funding to states and communities for programs that support everything from public health to education, transportation, neighborhood improvements and much more. That’s more than $3 trillion during the 10-year period until the next census. Government officials also use census figures to determine and administer everything from voting districts to school districts and Congressional representation.

The upcoming census will be particularly important here in Alaska because it will help officials document population trends and the apparent migration of rural Alaskans to towns and cities. The 2000 census counted 626,900 people in Alaska, and state officials estimate that number has grown about 8.4 percent, to 679,700 as of 2008. The state Division of Community and Regional Affairs estimates that the population in rural Alaska dropped some 3.6 percent during the same period.

I have heard accounts of “in-migration” from rural Alaska to urban Alaska, but these are largely anecdotal. What are Alaska’s actual counts? Where do all of these individuals live? And how should government and other organizations distribute social and health care funding and services to maximize their benefit?

The census will not solve the problems that are forcing many Alaskans to give up their rural or subsistence lifestyles so that they can move to urban areas to find jobs, better health care services and schools or lower food and fuel costs. But census data will help quantify the problems and show where money should be allocated to either slow the trend or better serve Alaskans who have moved.

Consequently, it is very important that we all take the time to accurately answer and return our census questionnaires after they arrive. The answers are confidential. All Census Bureau employees must take an oath to protect confidentiality and are subject to jail terms, fines or both for disclosing any information that could identify respondents or households.

The Census Bureau plans to hire and dispatch some 2,500 census-takers in Alaska who will fan out over 586,000 square miles to personally visit many of the households and dwelling places across the state. They will walk door-to-door in larger communities and use planes, snowmachines and four-wheelers to reach remote villages and home sites. These workers will encounter special challenges in Alaska, beyond climate, low population density and distance. Counters will also deal with language barriers and the challenges of finding homeless Alaskans who live in tents or vehicles or who are staying with friends or family members as they migrate to new communities. And they will have to figure out where certain workers and subsistence villagers live “most of the time” for counting purposes.

Census Bureau workers are already starting to work with village liaisons and others to start explaining and promoting the count. I look forward to the project’s completion because CIRI’s non-profit service providers are ready to start using the information to better serve their clients.