Alaska ranks last in census responses by phone, mail or computer

Toksook Bay selected their oldest resident Lizzy Nenguryar Chimiugak, age 89, to be the first person in the 2020 U.S. Census counted in the nation. Her daughter Veronica Simons sits to her left. Pictured December 11, 2019 at Chimiugak’s home. (Anna Rose MacArthur / KYUK)

Census officials are sounding the alarm about a low rate of response in Alaska, despite having started the once-a-decade tally of everyone living in the United States in an Alaska village. But they say the lack of response might not be due to the usual difficulties of counting Alaska’s remote communities, or the new challenge of the pandemic.

They just need Alaskans to talk to them.

Related: There’s $3.2B dollars at stake in the 2020 Census

The census kicked off in January with in-person counting in the western Alaska village of Toksook Bay. But, so far during the 2020 Census, Alaska ranks last among all states in what’s called “self-response.” Those are responses given online or by mail or phone. As of Tuesday, Alaska’s rate was 49.5 percent, while the overall national rate of self-response is 63 percent.

“Some people are fearful or not trusting of the government. Some people just aren’t aware of the census or don’t think it applies to them,” said U.S. Census Bureau spokesperson Donald Benz.

The bureau is making an extra push to reach more Alaskans and trying to remind people that the census is safe, easy and important, Benz said.

The count has implications for things like federal spending or the number of representatives a state has in Congress.

According to a Census Bureau map, there have been low rates of self-response in pretty much every region of Alaska, though the rate was better in Juneau and Anchorage, which were about at the national average, and to a lesser extent in Fairbanks. Alaska communities with higher rates of self-response also tended to have higher rates of responses given online.

Benz, with the Census Bureau, said enumerators are now beginning the final count of anyone they’ve so far missed. The bureau also announced Monday it would wrap up its counting work a month early this year, on September 30 instead of October 31 as originally planned, and would hire more enumerators to get the job done quicker.

For anyone worried about census workers spreading coronavirus, Benz said the enumerators are following enhanced hygiene protocols. And the door-to-door counting will be done in Alaska by people hired locally and considered “essential” workers, he said.

“It’s not like we’re going to be shipping people from California to Alaska to get this count. We’re hiring local people from the community,” Benz said.

For now, Alaska’s response rate remains about 5 percent lower than in 2010.

More information about the census is available at 2020census.gov.