Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

We need to get in the census game earlier, and with purpose | Editorials

The federal government spent billions on the 2020 Census, and fat lot of good it did: the national undercount of minorities was significant, according to US Census Bureau.

In a state with a majority of minorities, a reality that isn’t going away anytime soon, perhaps it’s time for state leaders to take note. The undercount is a next-verse-same-as-the-first refrain, and it’s time New Mexico wises up.

Which means this: getting ready for the census, at least for New Mexico, should be a nearly decadelong process, not one that ramps up the year before with the predictable news releases, news conferences and public service announcements. And if state officials are right — any undercount significantly retards a state’s ability to access needed federal funding — the financial imperative alone is reason enough to fund and execute efforts throughout the decade.

First, a few assumptions:

u Let’s acknowledge the 2020 Census was going to be a wreck, thanks in part to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that it appears the nation and state are beginning to come out of the nightmare, it’s natural to want to forget the disaster. But think about it: for much of 2020, the simple act of seeing someone at the door was enough to cause fits of discomfort, and many times, terror. So it’s not unreasonable to assume an undercount was in the cards all along.

According to a Census Bureau estimate released this month, the Hispanic population in the US has an undercount rate of 4.99 percent, far worse than a 1.54 percent undercount in 2010. For American Indian or Alaska Native populations living on reservations, the undercount rate was 5.64 percent. The undercount was 4.88 percent in 2010, which the bureau says is not statistically different. OK, but that’s not to say it was good.

So, to borrow from 19th century Gov. Manuel Armijo, “Poor New Mexico! So far from heaven, so close to Texas.”

This is an issue for both state political parties to consider. While it’s true we have no idea who will be governor in 2023, let alone 2027, both Democratic and Republican Party pooh-bahs recently have seen the wonders of federal largesse, thanks to pandemic relief funding. The ability to bask and bathe in that money has reopened the eyes of many, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep those spigots open.

As Attorney General Hector Balderas said in a statement: “New Mexico is one of the few minority-majority states with a high percentage of Hispanic and Native American people, and has been disproportionately impacted by the undercounting for decades. Federal dollars tied to census figures are crucial for our state and we can’t afford to receive far less than we deserve.”

A more accurate census count the next time around would make a difference in the 2030s. As Balderas accurately notes, if more Hispanics, Native Americans and other minorities are counted, New Mexico’s take from the feds gets bigger. And with the ripple effect of pandemic funding perhaps subsiding within a decade or so (it could be sooner, but let’s think positively for the moment), every dollar will count in, say, 2032.

It’ll be here sooner than you think.

For now, we encourage leaders in both parties to begin thinking about how they can fund and foster public education programs on the census. Yes, a set of educational public service announcements might be too soon this year, next year and perhaps the year after. But if the state funds and puts its own awareness plan into action by 2025 with a crescendo in 2029 and 2030, we might very well limit our undercount.

It’s true the execution of the census is largely the federal government and battalions of temp workers. But the plan, particularly in New Mexico, no longer can be a part-time diversion. We need to think ahead so we can be counted correctly. Anything less means another round of more of the same.

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