It’s not just the federal money New Mexico would lose if state residents are severely undercounted this year. It’s about “everything we touch,” said U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., during a Thursday conference call on the census.
“Those dollars signs equate to people not getting health care, which equates to people not addressing very real illnesses,” Heinrich said. “They translate into us having roads that are dangerous, into buses not being able to get back and forth between homes and schools in a timely way because the infrastructure is not adequate. It really does have a very serious impact on our lives.”
Heinrich joined New Mexico’s four other members of Congress and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, all Democrats, to sound an alarm: There were just 20 days remaining for state residents to fill out their census forms, and only 56 percent have done so.
The state’s political leaders have been worried about an undercount since early August, when the U.S. Census Bureau announced it would end all efforts to count the nation’s residents by Sept. 30 — a month earlier than initially planned.
Those efforts include knocking on doors, collecting online responses and making phone calls to ensure the 10-year count includes every resident.
The U.S. Constitution requires the federal government conduct a count of the population every 10 years. The data is used to draw boundaries of congressional districts, which determines in part how much political power communities get in Washington, and to make decisions about federal spending on a broad range of programs, from highway maintenance to education, school lunches and Medicaid.
Businesses often use census data to determine where they want to invest, what to pay workers and even what to stock on store shelves.
“Billions of dollars in federal funding hang in the balance,” U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján said during Thursday’s conference call.
Even a 1 percent undercount of New Mexico residents would cost the state an estimated $780 million.
A 2017 study by City University of New York found almost half of New Mexico’s 2 million residents — based on the 2010 census — live in remote communities that are difficult to reach by mail or door-knocking efforts.
The report said New Mexico was the state that faced the most challenges when it came to getting an accurate count in 2010.
According to New Mexico Counts, a coalition statewide organizations promoting the census, about 2 percent of New Mexico’s population wasn’t counted in 2010.
The 2020 census could see an even higher rate of uncounted New Mexicans.
It is the first census conducted largely online, in an effort to ease the participation process. But many New Mexico residents don’t have internet access in their homes, as the governor and congressional members noted Thursday.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic also has hindered efforts to reach residents in person. The earlier deadline to finalize the count has heightened a sense of urgency to ensure every household participates promptly.
“The census is a burning issue,” Lujan Grisham said.
“If history tells us anything,” she said, “we have to be better at this effort even without a pandemic and without a federal government that is, in my opinion, working against an accurate count, especially for states like New Mexico with incredibly diverse communities.”
In every county that hasn’t hit the 100 percent mark for census participation, she said, “We should be pushing every day diligently to improve our response rate and recognize what is at stake if we don’t.”
Some areas of the state look promising, according to federal data. As of Thursday, 69.2 percent of residents in Bernalillo County had submitted census data, and just over 67 percent in Sandoval County.
Santa Fe County had a response rate of 59.2 percent.
Smaller rural communities had even lower rates: 19.1 percent in Catron County, 24.1 percent in Mora County and about 25 percent in Lincoln County.
The governor said state workers who have volunteered to make calls encouraging people to fill out their census forms reached close to 3,000 New Mexicans over the past few days.
U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland of Albuquerque noted the lack of internet access in rural areas — including many Native American communities — is not only hindering the census but also creates sharp inequities for children as schools rely on distance learning programs amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Federal funding based on census data can make a difference, she said.
“I’ve seen kids sitting outside of a closed library using its internet service because they don’t have any at home and can’t access it anywhere else,” Haaland said.
“It is a human right,” she added. “Communication in 2020 is absolutely a human right.”