HELENA — Since February, Tylyn Newcomb has been losing sleep over a seemingly herculean task: how to ensure the government counts as many Montana residents as possible for the 2020 census, and, in doing so, generate fair federal funding and electoral representation for the next decade. 

“I mean, it’s vital work,” said Newcomb, one of the lead staffers focused on census outreach and grant funding for the Montana Nonprofit Association. “And so we don’t have the option to just give up and say it’s too hard, there’s too many barriers.”

For Newcomb and other nonprofit and state employees, preparing for an accurate federal census count in Montana has been equivalent to training for a grueling race. The hurdles include many of the state’s quintessential characteristics: a substantial rural population spread out over a vast geographic area, a widespread lack of city-style mailing addresses, and the frustration of unreliable internet access. All of those factors were present before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted basic civic and government services nationwide.

“Now, I feel like we are facing an uphill climb while it’s hailing basketballs,” Newcomb said. “There’s all these additional barriers because of [COVID-19]. And I worry that we’re not going to get the additional support we need to overcome them.”

THE PREPARATION

As of May 14, Montana’s self-response rate hovered just above 50%, putting it in 45th place in a ranking of states and territories. Without a substantially higher response rate, Montana could stand to lose federal funding for education, transportation and health care, among other programs. An inaccurate census count would also skew crucial data for local, state and federal legislative districts for the next 10 years. 

“I am still very concerned,” said Mary Craigle, director of the state’s Census and Economic Information Center, when updating members of the State-Tribal Relations Interim Committee on the census numbers last Friday.

Montana’s low participation rate thus far does not reflect the preparation that Craigle and her coworkers, along with nonprofit partners, have put toward outreach efforts. For months, census workers had been building toward a day of action on April 1, with plans to hold large public events around the state to encourage participation.

“Those in-person events were going to be critical,” said Amara Reese-Hansell, program director for the Forward Montana Foundation, a youth political action group. “The more you can hype up an event and make it exciting, and kind of use a little bit of that social pressure piece, like, ‘Hey look, all of your friends are filling out the census, all of your friends are getting counted, you should get counted, too,’ it actually is really deeply effective.” 

But after Gov. Steve Bullock issued a stay-at-home order on March 26, in-person events were off the table. Tribal nations and Native community groups also cancelled plans, including several powwows and conferences, that would have provided opportunities to boost census education and participation.

“It was a very sad time,” said Marci McLean, executive director of Western Native Voice. Her organization decided to cancel its three-day Indigenous Movements Interchange conference, which was scheduled for mid-March. “I mean, I had tears falling down my face because of it,” she remembered.

“It’s about so much more than this event,” McLean said. “It’s about advancing our issues. It’s getting a little bit more of our fair share of the pie. It’s getting our people counted.”

Filling out the census in person also became more challenging for individuals. Public libraries and other community organizations had registered as “Be Counted” locations, where Montanans could get assistance with the census form. As the pandemic developed, many of those locations closed as well. 

A screen shot from the Montana Census 2020 website shows the quick change in outreach strategy due to COVID-19.

THE RURAL DISADVANTAGE

Public census locations and events were a cornerstone of Montana’s outreach program largely because of the federal government’s inability to mail census information to many residences in rural and tribal areas. 

Roughly 20% of Montanans live in an “update leave area” without city-style addresses, according to the state Department of Commerce. In those cases, the Census Bureau will not send participation information to a resident’s mailbox, shifting the responsibility to hand deliveries and follow-up by federal employees.

But in mid-March, in response to the spread of COVID-19, the Census Bureau announced it would temporarily suspend its field operations, stalling update/leave work in several rural and tribal areas. 

“The whole update/leave situation coming to a halt really sidelined Montana,” Craigle said.

Without widespread mail delivery or a robust update/leave program, Craigle said, tribal members living on reservations are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to fair representation. This year, an estimated 29,000 households in tribal areas in Montana have not received any invitation to participate in the census, resulting in particularly low self-response numbers, according to the Department of Commerce. 

So far, less than 4% of residents on the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations have participated in the census. Most other tribal nations in the state have tallied responses between 5 and 14%. The Flathead Reservation currently has the highest tribal response rate in the state, at 37%, in part because it has fewer update/leave residences. 

“It’s probably a good thing that those numbers are so low,” said McLean, explaining that halting the update/leave program was the safest option to protect many residents, particularly elderly people. “That’s something that we need to portray to our people. This was your self-report rate before anybody hit your door, before anybody gave you your information about how to get counted.”

Last week the U.S. Census Bureau re-started field work in some update/leave areas in Montana and a dozen other states. That means federal employees, complete with identification and personal protective equipment, are supposed to be increasing hand-deliveries of census participation packets in certain locations. 

Craigle and McLean said their current understanding is that the Census Bureau will be hiring residents from each reservation to deliver packets and conduct follow-ups, a strategy designed to prevent nonresidents from traveling to tribal nations that are continuing stay-at-home orders. 

Employees at the Denver Regional Office of the Census Bureau, which oversees Montana’s census efforts, have not yet answered emailed questions about how many employees have been hired for each reservation, or where field operations are being re-started within the state. 

THE WORK AHEAD

Census outreach workers in Montana agree there are reasons for optimism, even considering the setbacks. In light of the pandemic, the Census Bureau in April announced it would extend its deadline for self-response to October 31. 

The additional three months was widely seen as a win by Montana census workers, given the previous deadline of July 31. And yet, Craigle said, the good news includes another challenge: the extended opportunity for outreach requires additional funding to be successful.

“Someone at some level really needs to have some resources to keep that message going, and to assist the [Census] Bureau in making sure that every Montana resident is counted,” Craigle said.

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During its 2019 session, the state Legislature designated $100,000 for a census outreach campaign, but that money is mostly spent, Craigle said. Bullock’s administration has not committed to allocating additional grant funding from the federal CARES Act toward state census outreach. In a statement, Lt. Governor Mike Cooney stressed the importance of an accurate census count in the state, and reiterated that much of the crucial outreach work to achieve that goal will be done by local community groups and through “neighbor-to-neighbor conversations.”

“A record number of complete count committees have formed to get the message out in local communities, and we are working daily with our tribal partners, colleges and universities, local governments and nonprofit organizations throughout Montana to make sure Montanans know how important it is that they’re counted,” Cooney said.

Marissa Perry, spokeswoman for the governor’s office, added that the census is one issue being considered for grant funding “alongside everything else.”

Even if additional resources don’t come through, many state and nonprofit census workers say they intend to make the best of the situation. When tribal nations do start to ease shelter-in-place restrictions, McLean said, her organization wants to train local residents to start knocking doors and reminding people about why being counted matters. 

“We’re doing it for our kids, we’re doing it for our future, we’re doing it for our ancestors,” McLean said. “It’s about the bigger community of indigenous people, so that they can have the opportunities that I didn’t have,” she said, referencing funding for education, housing and other public services tied to census data.

Despite the difficulties, Craigle said she remains motivated to ramp up outreach efforts, especially when she looks at the years worth of paperwork and research that represents her team’s work.

“I look around my office,” she said, “and think, yeah, the mission hasn’t been accomplished yet.”

Silvers returns to her home state from producing Slate’s daily news podcast What Next. Before that she worked as a producer and reporter in the WNYC/Gothamist newsroom at New York Public Radio. Her work has been featured on NPRThe United States of Anxiety, The Takeaway, Nancy, and Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org and follow her on Twitter.