Aleutians West census area has less than 5% response rate as count resumes

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Census workers have begun distributing materials in Unalaska again after a two-month pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On March 18, the Census Bureau delayed operations and stopped sending enumerators out into the field in order to prioritize safety and ensure a complete and accurate count of all communities.

Berett Wilber, communications director for Alaska Counts ⁠— a non-profit, non-partisan census education initiative ⁠— said census data is used to determine how much money communities get from the federal government. When someone is counted by the census, they’re contributing to resources in their community ⁠— like funding for schools and roads, as well as public programs like Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) ⁠— whether or not they use those programs themselves. 

In fiscal year 2016, Alaska received $3.19 billion through 55 federal spending programs guided by data derived from the last census count in 2010.

“The legislature just approved $1.5 billion in CARES Act funding for the State of Alaska to deal with the coronavirus. And that’s a big deal. But the census actually brings in $3.2 billion to Alaska every year, for the next 10 years. So over the next 10 years, that’s more than $30 billion,” said Wilber. “And [whether or not] those resources come to Alaska for public programs like public health, or the Indian Health Service, SNAP, TANF, elder grants, grants [that go] directly to communities, grants to small businesses, all of that and much, much more is directly based on our census count.” 

The census generates critical data that helps power the economy, said Wilber. For example, companies like Alaska Airlines use census data to figure out where to start a new flight leg, or grocery store chains might use census data to figure out the best spot to build a new grocery store.

Filling out the census is also mandated by the U.S. Constitution ⁠— which requires an accurate count of the nation’s population every 10 years ⁠— and is a blueprint for our democracy, said Wilber. So even in the face of something like COVID-19, the count still has to happen. 

Unalaska City Manager Erin Reinders said she encourages all Unalaska residents to participate in the 2020 Census ⁠— which takes about 10 minutes to complete and contains less than 10 questions ⁠— and to spread the word. 

“An accurate count is important because federal and state funding is allocated to communities using this data,” said Reinders. “Census data can also be a vital tool in economic development.  Decisions are made on matters of national and local importance based, in part, on census data, such as determining how many seats each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives and with redistricting of state legislative seats.”

Census data is how the government figures out how to draw voting districts, and how to ensure every person is equally represented in government. If a population is underrepresented in the count, the amount of resources that community gets is disproportionate to its size. 

Certain population groups ⁠— referred to as “hard-to-count” ⁠— are at a higher risk of not being fully counted in the census. Being hard-to-count can lead to unequal political representation and unequal access to vital public and private resources for these groups and their communities, according to The Leadership Conference Education Fund.

American Indians and Alaska Natives have been undercounted for decades, and roughly one-quarter of Natives currently live in hard-to-count census tracts. Since the census determines how much money the federal government will allocate to federally recognized tribes for programs such as Head Start or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) for the next 10 years, this leads to major financial losses and lack of representation. According to the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), if a Native family of four is not counted, their community loses $14,000 in funding annually.

“In the U.S., American Indians and Alaska Natives are the group that is considered the hardest to count,” said Wilber. “And that means that Alaska Native people have been historically underrepresented in the census. And there are some serious consequences for being undercounted: from unequal political representation to unequal access to critical resources like public health, or the Indian Health Service, our Alaska Native Tribal Health program with hospitals all over the state, the Head Start program, employment programs that work specifically to empower Alaska Native communities — [Alaskan Native communities] don’t get the funding that they need.” 

Charlene Shaishnikoff, deputy tribal administrator for the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska — which has about 816 members, 225 to 250 of whom are on-island — said the tribe started reaching out to tribal members and Alaska Natives earlier this year about filling out the 2020 Census. The AFN had asked the tribe to make it clear to its members to fill out the census with the name of their federally recognized tribe, as opposed to their regional or village corporation. She said it’s important for tribal members to mark the “Alaska Native” option and then fill in the box with their tribe in Question 9 — which asks about race — in order to get appropriate funding and accurate representation. 

“I think in the past there wasn’t a good count of [Alaska Natives],” said Shaishnikoff. “And for funding purposes, it’s so important for Alaska Native people to be counted and to make sure they put in the tribe they are enrolled in.” 

For people concerned about the government getting their information from the census, Wilber said the data remains confidential, and anyone who applies for the Permanent Fund dividend (PFD) in Alaska has already given far more information than the census asks for.

One of the primary ways the population in Alaska is counted is through online self-response. Folks get a code in the mail or dropped on their doorstep from the Census Bureau, which they can use to log on to and access the short form.

Right now, responsiveness in the Aleutians is low. As of Thursday, 4.9 percent of the Aleutians West Census Area had responded. But Wilber said she expects to see that number rise as census forms begin dropping on peoples’ doorsteps and in their mailboxes. Unalaskans have until Oct. 31 to respond.

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