A view of Wrangell from the Mt. Dewey lookout, August 2020.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

Alaska’s 2020 Census self-response rate is the worst out of all 50 states. Puerto Rico’s response rate is lower… but it’s not a state. And out of all the boroughs in the region, Wrangell’s self-response rate is among the lowest across Southeast Alaska. Local and state leaders say that’s a concern, because the census is crucial for weighing a community’s political clout and calculating how much state and federal funding it’ll receive in years to come. 

Listen to the story here.

Wrangell’s census self-response rate is just 41%. That’s only half a percent higher than it was this time last month

Esther Ashton, the Tribal Administrator for Wrangell’s local tribe the Wrangell Cooperative Association, says the tribe had planned on doing a lot of work to help with the count. 

“We had planned census efforts that were very large community gathering types of things, and then March it and COVID hit,” Ashton said Tuesday. “And obviously a lot of that had to be canceled.”

Ashton says the tribe is now calling around to each tribal member to ask about census response and CARES act funding needs: “We’re making an effort to in the safest way we can reach out to all of our tribal members here in Wrangell to say, ‘Have you completed it? Let us help you complete it. It’s very important.'”

Census counts affect the tribe’s Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act funding, also known as NAHASDA. It also plays a big role in determining funding for community-wide programs, like WIC, TANF, Head Start, and Snap, as well as community improvement projects. 

Nicole Borromeo is the Executive Vice President and General Counsel for the Alaska Federation of Natives. She says every single person–Native and not–counted in Alaska brings in $3,500 dollars a year in funding for state and local programs. If someone isn’t counted?

“Over ten years, that’s $35,000 that the state is deprived of, that their communities are deprived of,” Borromeo explained.

The fact remains, there are two weeks left until the census deadline, and Wrangell’s response rate is lower than any other major Southeast community.

Esther Ashton, Wrangell’s tribal administrator, says she had heard anecdotally that people in Wrangell might be worried about privacy. 

“There was some talk about how people might not trust that their information is kept secure and safe and that it’s confidential,” she said. “But it’s interesting to note that the amount of information you give for the census is much less than you give for your permanent fund dividend. So if you can trust that, this is definitely much less [information], and definitely very confidential.”

Ashton did note she hasn’t heard specific feedback from tribal citizens about whether or not they trust the confidentiality of the census. 

Borromeo, the AFN Executive Vice President, says that confusion over the deadline is one of the biggest frustrations the federation is facing in trying to ‘get out the count.’ People just think they have more time than they do, she says. But the deadline is about two weeks away.

She also mentions the lack of broadband in the state as an issue. The traditional army of census enumerators haven’t been able to sweep the state during a pandemic, and mixed messaging about phone and internet enumeration has hindered efforts.

“Alaska is always one of their tougher states to count because of our size, our geographic remoteness, our communication issues, weather,” Borromeo said. “I mean, there’s a whole host of issues and make Alaska really difficult for the census to try and get a complete and accurate count for.”

Beyond funding, Borromeo notes that the census is important in terms of state affairs going forward. Legislative districts for the state will be redrawn in 2021, based on census data. People not counted in the federal census won’t count for state re-apportionment either. 

For tribal members specifically, Ashton and Borromeo say it’s important that if you’re Alaska Native, you put yourself down as the head of household, no matter what your gender or relationship status is, and even if you aren’t the primary financial provider: “We want the native person to list their information first because then the whole house is counted as a native house. And that makes a big difference when it comes to federal funding formulas for tribal programs,” Borromeo explained.

Borromeo also emphasizes it’s important for Alaska Natives to write in the name of their federally recognized tribe on the “race” portion of the census, not the name of their corporation.

Here in Wrangell, that would be the Wrangell Cooperative Association.

The nationwide census response deadline is September 30.

Get in contact with KSTK at news@kstk.org or (907) 974-2345.