The head of the US Census Bureau, Robert Santos, visited Sitka on October 17. (KCAW/Rose)

“Let me start by saying something that I hope will not shock the public, because it’s always been true. And that is that no census, no decennial census, has ever been perfect. They’re designed to be as accurate as they possibly can be,” said U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Santos, who visited Sitka on October 17. Director Santos was appointed by President Joe Biden in 2022, just after the COVID-19 pandemic added unprecedented challenges to the country’s biggest effort to collect population data. 

“We use the best technology, the best methodology,” Santos said. “We have a fair amount of funding to get that done. And we do, every 10 years, the Census Bureau does the best that it possibly can.” 

The US Census Bureau’s work goes far beyond the decennial census. In addition to annual surveys, the census studies its own data in “post enumeration studies,” to figure out each census’s shortcomings. 

“By being transparent, by using scientific integrity, basically using our values to say, ‘Here’s where the data are good. And here’s where they have limitations,’ you actually make the available data more valuable, because you know what to look out for,” Santos said.

“So that’s where we’re at right now,” he added. “And we’re now in the process of doing our assessments to see where we could improve for 2030, and more importantly, we’re reaching out to communities like Sitka to say, what can we do differently?” 

Through that work, they estimate that in the 2020 census, Alaska Natives and American Indians were undercounted by over 5 percent. Undercounting is a longstanding problem that can have major implications for tribes. Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s transportation director Gerry Hope said the Tribe has seen first hand how data collection can inform federal funding formulas. 

“About five years ago, one of the attorneys that we work with, Matt Jaffe from Sonosky Chambers, brought up one of the funding formula elements for the tribal transportation programs funding, which had to do with the population count,” Hope said.

The problem Jaffe caught was a result of the way the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey calculates the total Alaska Native population when respondents list themselves as either Alaska Native or Alaska Native and another race.

The survey collects detailed information on everything from race and ethnicity, to sex and household composition- even whether a respondent has access to high speed internet. And the data collected from those surveys are used by federal agencies to determine funding levels for certain tribal programs. 

In Sitka, at least two programs depend on these counts to be accurate in order to secure full funding– the Baranof Island Housing Authority which oversees tribally designated housing, and STA’s transportation program. Hope said the Tribe had long struggled to get federal authorities to address the problem.

“Our challenge over the past five years was ‘How do we get the Census Bureau’s attention? How do we coordinate with BIHA and try and get some focus in on this,'” Hope said. “It was like treading water. Finally, earlier this year, there was an opportunity to meet with a tribal specialist in the Census Bureau. And so we were able to start getting traction on our concerns.” 

Santos said the issue came up when their data was used by the Bureau of Housing and Urban Development to implement policy – but the way HUD was using the data led to an additional undercount of Alaska Natives. He said it was a “big, big issue” that the Census Bureau will be looking into. 

“And so we need to go and look back at that and see what we can do, number one, to help the department that’s implementing policy understand the magnitude of the change that occurred by their decision,” Santos said. “But secondly, and more importantly, what do we need to do in order to explore ways to to help lessen the undercount?”

Hope said the Sitka Tribe and the Census Bureau have committed to meeting regularly in the coming months to try to figure out next steps to tackling the undercount. The fix could be administrative, within the Census Bureau itself, or through congressional action. There’s no timeline for how long it could take, but Hope is optimistic. 

“So we’re going to be able to really work and develop that roadmap,” Hope said, “To a count that reflects, I would dreaming here…100% accuracy rather than the undercount that exists. But we’re just really happy that we have their ear, we have an opportunity to work on this. And they’re very open to it. So that’s really a big achievement.”

After Director Santos’ visit to Sitka concluded, he and his team made their way to the Alaska Federation of Natives Conference in Anchorage, where he’ll meet with tribes, and give a presentation on the census.

“So it reflects our recognition that…we should go beyond staying in our headquarters, and doing the best analyses we can, with the top notch statisticians and economists and scientists that we have, to come up with the best methods,” Santos said. “We also need to get out into the community.”

A public comment period on the 2030 Census is open through the middle of November, and Santos hopes Americans will share their ideas in how the bureau can improve the next census.