A Census Letter to Montana’s Legislators

July 27, 2020

Dear Senator Daines, Congressman Gianforte, and Senator Tester,

First, I want to thank you for your service to Montana. Each one of you has been crucial to getting Montanans the resources and information we need to navigate these challenging times.

I am writing to you about a critical effort that has been jeopardized by COVID-19—our collective efforts to secure a complete and accurate census count in Montana. I am sure you and your staff already understand what is at stake for Montana, from billions of dollars in federal funding to fair representation for Montanans in the US Congress.

Unfortunately, the census efforts in Montana and other large, rural states with Tribal Nations were hit particularly hard by the necessary public health precautions and the suspension of US Census Bureau activities precipitated by COVID-19. As you likely know, Montana currently has the 6th lowest self-response rate among the states (56.5%, compared to 62.6% nationally). Unfortunately, that statistic belies even more troubling disparities within the state. Currently six reservations and eleven counties in Montana have self-response rates lower than 30%, with three of those reservations under 10%.

I am heartened to report that we recently successfully worked with a broad coalition of a dozen organizations to request that a portion of CARES Act funding be devoted to state-based census activities in Montana, and you have my commitment that the Montana Nonprofit Association will continue to do everything we can to engage nonprofits and other partners in providing education, outreach, and opportunities for improving Montana’s self-response rates. But, we can only do so much.

Ultimately, the US Census Bureau’s activities, strategies, and commitment will determine whether Montana achieves a complete and accurate count. I am requesting you will help us elevate Montana as a national priority for the Bureau.

I believe bipartisan outreach to the US Census Bureau would go a long way to ensuring that our federal partners, stretched thin and working hard to respond nationally to the challenges created by COVID-19, give Montana the resources and attention it needs. The truth is that the US Census Bureau has been understaffed in Montana since well-before the pandemic began. The workers and leaders on the ground have too much responsibility for too large and diverse a geography. With the challenges mounting and the clock ticking, Montana needs the full attention of the highest level of leadership in the Bureau. Can you help?

Below are three actions you could take that we believe would have the most immediate and significant impact:

  • Contact with and Requests of the US Census Bureau:
    • Contact the US Census Bureau and request a detailed and robust plan for how the Bureau will reach the counties and reservations with the lowest self-response rates. From our perspective, the priority elements of this plan would include:
      • Immediately re-hire a Public Information Officer in Montana.
      • Immediately ensure at least 7 Tribal Census Specialists are employed for the state of Montana.
      • Immediately hire more door-to-door Census workers to service update/leave Census tracts. We want to emphasize the importance of hiring people local to the communities in which they’re working to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, especially on Montana’s seven American Indian Reservations, where we can expect ongoing, rolling closures to outside populations.
      • Regular updates from the Census Bureau about their efforts in Montana.
  • Funding for the extended 2020 Census efforts:
    • Work with delegations from rural states experiencing low self-response rates (e.g. Alaska, Wyoming, New Mexico) and states with the hardest-to-count communities to secure funding in stimulus or relief bills to address increased barriers/challenges to Census work due to COVID-19.
    • Explore opportunities for funding to address the digital divide between Rural and Urban/Suburban America, particularly in Indian Country.
  • Elevating the 2020 Census:
    • Add information about completing the Census, including the link and phone number, to every COVID-19-related email or other communication from any member of the Montana delegation.
    • Advocate to place a “complete the census” button linking to the official Census form on every Congressional member’s official website.

I know how busy you are with your critical work protecting the interests of Montanans, and I do not take the request for your attention lightly. Unfortunately, Census 2020 is somewhat lost in the crisis of the pandemic, but it’s no less critical now than it was last year when we began working in earnest to ensure Montana gains a fair, complete and accurate count. In fact, it may be more consequential than ever. Thank you in advance for your time, and please do not hesitate to reach out to me directly if there is anything that my staff or I can do to be off assistance or provide you with additional information.

Sincerely,
Liz Moore, Executive Director

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