WLD_ALASKA 4-1579707638298
U.S. Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham speaks with a local as the latest once-in-a decade head count of Americans began in the Bering Sea coastal village of Toksook Bay, Alaska on Tuesday. Image Credit: Reuters

TOKSOOK BAY, Alaska: The 2020 census officially began Tuesday in Toksook Bay, an Alaskan village on the edge of the frozen Bering Sea where census takers hope to show they can overcome language barriers, isolation and government distrust to develop an accurate tally for minority groups who have long suffered from undercounts.

Visitors travelling to the village of about 650 must fly 500 miles from Anchorage, and then scoot into town on the back of a snow machine or four-wheeled ATV — the same ones that deliver the mail to a post office the size of a small backyard shed.

On Tuesday, a small advance team spent much of the day anxiously waiting to see whether a planeload of senior Census Bureau officials, flying in for a ceremonial early start of the once-a-decade national tally, would make it through the thick winter fog.

US Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham rides on a snowmobile in the Bering Sea coastal village of Toksook Bay, Alaska on Tuesday. Image Credit: Reuters

“Counting those who are in hard-to-reach villages has been a challenge for the Census Bureau every decade since 1870,” said Steven Dillingham, the bureau’s director, before his trip to Toksook Bay. “Here in Alaska, we have these very special challenges. The geography is so vast.”

The census, scheduled to get underway in most of the country in mid-March, provides a vital foundation of data used to determine everything from congressional representation to federal spending on education, health care and food assistance.

This year, there are renewed calls for special attention to minority neighbourhoods and indigenous communities like Toksook Bay. In many such places, traditional methods have historically failed to count some people who may be invisible as a result of the federal government’s inability to overcome geography, language barriers or the reluctance of some residents to interact with government representatives.

The Census Bureau estimated that Native Americans and Alaska Natives living on reservations were undercounted by about 4.9% during the 2010 census, more than twice the rate of the next closest population group.

Many advocates fear that a now-abandoned Trump administration effort to ask about citizenship status may have already set the stage for a depressed count among immigrant groups.

wld_alaska 2-1579707642792
US Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham walks alongside census worker Tim Metzger in the Bering Sea coastal village of Toksook Bay, Alaska on Tuesday. Image Credit: AP

The census hopes to avoid an undercount by using partners who can help lay the groundwork in minority communities, hiring people with knowledge of local neighbourhoods to do the actual count and producing videos in 59 languages that explain how to fill out census forms. A new advertising campaign targeting minority groups is intended to convey that the process is easy, important and confidential.

Donna Bach, hired last year as a “partnership specialist” to help pave the way for the count in Alaska, said she had already spent months giving presentations to tribal leaders and meeting with local officials to explain why the census matters.

Money derived from census data totals about $3.2 billion in Alaska, funding health programs, local clinics and education programs like Head Start. Census-derived funding also goes toward improvements to roads and runways, critical to remote Alaska Native villages like Toksook Bay, where people rely on aeroplanes that deliver mail, medicine and the food to stock store shelves.

“We tell everyone there are 3.2 billion reasons why the census matters,” Bach said.

Census representatives are beginning their sweep through rural Alaska during the frigid weeks of winter because frozen ground allows easier access to some villages, and residents are more likely to be home before the spring thaw draws them to their fishing grounds.

Despite concerns about reaching indigenous communities, the Census Bureau, working with a tight budget, has pressed ahead with a plan to prioritise an internet-based head count; much of the country will get an invitation to fill out information online, and those who do not respond will be contacted in other ways. The online option offers a cheaper solution at a time when some states, including Alaska, are ramping up their own spending to make sure their residents participate.

Rosmary Henry and Kaziah Therichik prepare for an Alaska Native dance in honour of the census workers. Image Credit: AP

Census Bureau officials said they would not rely on an internet count in remote Alaskan villages such as Toksook Bay.

After spending hours waiting in Bethel for the fog to clear, Dillingham and other Census Bureau officials arrived in Toksook Bay to begin the count Tuesday afternoon. Dillingham’s first stop was at the home of the village’s oldest resident, Lizzie Chimiugak, to count her as the first census participant.

In Alaska and elsewhere, the bureau has been slow to hire the partnership specialists who are supposed to be key liaisons to build support in local communities before counting begins. There are added worries that people hired to do the counting may not be prepared for a job involving travel by bush planes, ATVs and even dog sleds, along with lodging in schools or in the homes of local residents who may be wary of outsiders from the government.

As census leaders prepared to begin the count in recent weeks, they readied an advertising campaign to reach Native residents living in remote villages of Alaska to help begin building trust.

But the effort stumbled almost immediately. An advocate for Alaska Natives said that when she finally heard a planned radio spot in November, she immediately raised concerns, among them that some names of Alaskan groups had been mispronounced.

“I was shocked,” said Nicole Borromeo, the general counsel for the Alaska Federation of Natives. The census has scrambled over the past several days to prepare a new ad, but Borromeo said the production quality was not on par with other census advertising campaigns.

The delay in bringing partnership specialists on board has been an issue around the country. The Government Accountability Office found that the Census Bureau missed its hiring targets last year and warned that it could have a negative impact in hard-to-count areas. In Alaska, Borromeo said the census had hired one and was in the process of bringing in two others.

She said the bureau should have had 12 partnership specialists in place in Alaska a year ago to begin laying the groundwork for the count. “Better late than never,” she said.

Kevin Allis, the chief executive of the National Congress of American Indians, said local communities have had to fund their own efforts to build grass roots engagement in preparation for the count.

“We’re filling in the gaps here because if we don’t do it, then our folks don’t get counted,” Allis said.

In Toksook Bay, Robert Pitka, the local tribal administrator, said he had talked about the census at public meetings, at evening practices for the community dance group and during a tribal membership meeting this month.

He has relayed his message to tribal administrators in neighbouring communities: Tununak, 7 miles to the north, and Nightmute, about 14 miles to the east. “This is to benefit for the next 10 years for our children, our grandchildren’s future,” he said.