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Census Bureau Chief Touts Measures to Boost Alaska’s Participation in 2020 Headcount

Tim Ellis/KUAC

The head of the U.S. Census Bureau stopped by Delta Junction Thursday as part of a tour around the state to encourage Alaskans to participate in the 2020 Census.

Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham says he came to Alaska to let people here know that the agency has made it easier to participate in next year’s headcount. He hopes that and other changes will help the state improve on its tepid response to the 2010 census, when only about 64 percent of Alaskans initially responded – the lowest rate of all the 50 states.

“Our goal is in every state in this nation to improve the self-response rate,” he said in an interview Thursday. “And I’ll think we’ll do that in Alaska.”

Dillingham says he scheduled a stop in Delta Junction in part because it’s located in an area that had one of the state’s lowest rates of participation in 2010. Only about 18 percent of the people in the so-called Southeast Fairbanks Census Area responded back then.

“Wherever I go, I always make a point to visit what we call hard-to-count areas,” he said. “Those are the areas where the self-response rate is below, say, the state average or below the national average. And Alaska has been challenged in this way.”

Dillingham says his visit to Alaska has helped him understand the difficulty of conducting the census in a sprawling state with a small, diverse population, some of which is located in remote communities, where the culture may not place a high priority on the headcount.

“Alaska has a lot challenges,” he said, “because of its geography, its size, its languages, its tribal groups.”

Local census workers say the cultural factor contributing to the low census-response rate in the Delta area is distrust of government by many members of the Slavic community. The emigres who’ve come here from Russia and other former Soviet republics over the past couple of decades constitute about a quarter of the area’s population – or about 2,000 people.

Don Frazier says when he worked on the 2010 census, he tried to explain that he’s just looking for basic information that’ll be held in strict confidence. “These are really simple questions," he said. "We just want to know who lives here, how many people live here, a few basic questions about you. And I’m done.”

“Clearly, there’s a resistance from some people from a cultural community that just isn’t comfortable handing information to the government,” says Don Frazier, who worked on Delta’s 2010 census. He says he encountered a lot of that resistance among members of the Slavic community back then.

But he says there’s another segment of the local population that may be even harder for census workers to win over: folks who just want to be left alone.

“A lot of people come to Alaska to get away from other things,” Frazier said. “And if they come to the door at all, they probably come with an attitude.”

Those and other Alaskans share a concern over giving information about themselves or their families to the federal government. And the controversy over President Trump’s proposal to add a question to the census form about people’s immigration status seems likely to aggravate that concern. Dillingham says the Census Bureau doesn’t have enough data on whether the flap over the immigration question will discourage participation in the headcount. But he said preliminary studies suggest it’s likely to have, at most, a minimal effect.

“By and large, we’re finding that people – even the people that for example were opposed to the question – they’re all supportive of everybody answering the census,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Census workers and volunteers will try to overcome reluctance to participate by emphasizing that an accurate count showing population growth will bring in more federal funds.

“We want to make sure every Alaskan is counted, so that we get our fair share of the federal resources that come from the census-derived funding formulas,” says Barb Miranda, who works out of the Census Bureau’s statewide office in Juneau.

She’s a former mayor of the city of Gustavus, so she understands the importance of federal funding for small towns. And she says most Alaskans do, too – even those who are reluctant to share information about themselves or their family.

“We rely on federal highway dollars to make sure our roads stay open,” Miranda said. “Our health clinics, our schools – especially in unorganized boroughs – we rely on federal funds to keep those doors open.”

Dillingham is now back to Fairbanks, where he’ll speak to the Alaska Federation of Natives before flying Saturday to the Bristol Bay community that bears his name. Next week, he’s off to New Mexico.