Census Undercount Threatens Federal Food and Health Programs on Reservations

 Census Undercount Threatens Federal Food and Health Programs on Reservations


The 2020 census missed nearly 1 in every 17 Native Americans living on reservations, a low number that could lead to insufficient federal funding for important health, nutrition, and social programs. remote communities with high poverty and limited access to services.

The census counts 9.7 million people identified as a Native American or an Alaskan Native by 2020-alone or with another race or ethnicity-compared to 5.2 million in 2010. But the Native population of the country’s estimated 325 reservations is almost incalculable. 6%, according to a demographic analysis of census accuracy. Indigenous people on the reservations have a history of underestimation – almost 5% disappeared in 2010, according to the analysis.

At least 1 in 5 Native Americans live on reservations, according to previous census data. More detailed Native American population data from the 2020 census will be released next year.

Census numbers help determine how much money is spent on various reservation programs such as health care, social services, education, and infrastructure. For example, on the Blackfeet reservation in northwestern Montana, the co-chairperson of a food pantry whose funds depend in part on census counts was worried that lowering the count would make it even more difficult after the year for all families who need free food to access. they.

The food pantry – run by an organization called FAST Blackfeet, which stands for Food Access and Sustainability Team – serves about 400 households each week, according to Danielle Antelope. The 2020 census put the Blackfeet reservation population at 9,900, which Antelope said “does not reflect our figures in fact.”

Thirty -seven percent of the people on the Blackfeet reservation lived below the poverty line from 2014 to 2018, compared to a 13% statewide average, according to the periodic American Community Survey estimate.

“I see the problem of undercounting the census in relation to the representation of need,” Antelope said.

Antelope said he saw firsthand what it means when people living on reservations break through the cracks. Her mom was a bus driver who made too much money to qualify for federal income -based food assistance programs, but not enough to feed her children. The family relies on processed foods from the frozen aisle.

If the product is expensive or hard to find, cheap packaged foods are often the only option. “As we know now, cheap foods are associated with health differences,” Antelope said. “And those health differences are high in communities of color and tribal communities.”

Census errors are not limited to Native Americans on reservations. Black (3%) and Hispanic (5%) people living in the U.S. were also not counted. On the other hand, white people were overweight (2%).

Among U.S. states, Montana has the fourth largest share of Native residents, at 6%, and Native Americans are the second largest racial or ethnic group in the state, after people who identify as white. The percentage would rise to 9% if it included people identifying as “American Indian and Alaska Native alone or in combination” of another race or ethnicity. Most native residents live on one of Montana’s seven reservations or in a nearby town or county.

The Health Service of India, the federal agency obligated to provide medical care to the majority of Indigenous residents in the country, received partial funding based on the census. Nationwide in 2019, the most recent year for which the data is available, IHS spent $ 4,078 per person, according to agency data. In comparison, Medicaid, the federal health insurance program for people with low incomes and certain disabilities, spent more than double the rate, $ 8,436. A memo from the U.S. Government Accountability Office says the usefulness of per capita comparisons is limited because federal programs vary.

Health gaps appear during a pandemic. In Montana, the leading cause of death among Indigenous people by 2020 is covid, largely due to other human conditions, such as respiratory illness, obesity, and diabetes. Heart disease is the second leading cause of death.

More accurate census counts will lead to “more funding support from the federal government and even the state government,” said Leonard Smith, CEO of Billings-based Native American Development Corp., a nonprofit. provides technical assistance and financial services to small businesses. “I think it makes people realize that there is a much larger Indigenous population than what was reported, and so it has become a higher priority. It’s all about the numbers,” he said. Smith.

More accurate calculations could also help improve infrastructure and housing on reservations.

Federal housing assistance remains inaccessible to many households on tribal reservations. Research points to a strong relationship between housing and better health outcomes. A 2020 study published in the journal BMC Public Health concluded that nearly 70% of people who get safe, secure housing report “better” health conditions nine to 12 months. the past, compared to when they experienced insecurity at home.

According to a 2017 report from the National Congress of American Indians, more than 15% of homes in areas on or near Native Reservations are considered overcrowded – meaning there is more than one person per room , including living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, and closed porches – compared to 2% of homes among other populations.

Even though nearly a quarter of households have incomes below 50% of the federal poverty line, the report said, only about 12% receive federal housing assistance. Census data is used to determine funding for housing and community improvement grants.

“If a census lowers an Indigenous community, it has a direct and lasting impact on the resources available to the community – things like schools and parks, health care facilities, and roads, “said Michael Campbell, deputy director of the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colorado.

The impact of the funding undercount will exceed community budgets and programs. This created a feeling among the Indigenous people that their presence in the country was less important than others, leading to both political inequality and personal harm, tribal members said.

“Because for so many years we’ve been accustomed to being innumerable, we don’t hold that desire for our government to make a place for us today,” Antelope said. “If we have the right numbers that reflect our community, our voice will be heard, and we will get services and funding that better reflect our community.”

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