ALBUQUERQUE – Over the last 40 years, downtown Albuquerque has become a checkerboard of residential, commercial and government properties – all occupying Census Tract 21.
There are Old World families who have lived here for generations and immigrant families who come and go. And then there’s Maria Theresa Rodriguez-Ronces, a spry 82-year-old landlord who immigrated from Acapulco in 1970, became a naturalized citizen in 1974, and bought her first property in 1976.
“My chance to buy here came because people wanted to live in the Northeast Heights, nobody wanted to live down here then,” she said, as she scattered seed on the sidewalk for a flock of resident pigeons. “One dollar a day, I started saving, five dollars a week. I saved $8,000, and that was the down payment on my house.“
She now owns five multi-family apartment developments, a small commercial space and a home, and she currently has 15 tenants. And as far as she knows, not one of them – including herself – has ever been counted in the U.S. census.
“They’ve never asked me, but I get letters from Washington like you would not imagine,” she quipped.
Her building lies in the heart of downtown Albuquerque, which, with its more than 1,200 residents, is one of more than 30 hard-to-count tracts in the city. For every resident missed in the count, New Mexico loses about $3,000 in federal funding according to an analysis by the George Washington Institute of Public Policy.
New Mexico is filled with hard-to-count areas, putting the state at risk of losing crucial federal funding. Some of these areas are what one would expect; inaccessible, desolate rural swathes, areas with poor internet access or colonias, unincorporated communities in close proximity to the border.
But others are urban neighborhoods like Barelas, the International District, and downtown Albuquerque, where Rodriquez-Ronces lives in the same efficiency apartment she’s occupied for 43 years.
When it comes to the census, diversity can be an obstacle to an accurate count. Communities of color are historically undercounted at a high rate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s own measurements. In the Barelas neighborhood, 80 percent of the tract is Hispanic, and downtown, it’s 50 percent.
While census workers will ultimately conduct the count and follow up door to door, the state commission is tasked with ensuring the public is well informed and ready to participate when Census Day arrives on April 1, 2020.
In the last census, fewer than two-thirds of the approximately 1,200 people in Tract 21 self-responded to the survey, according to census data. Some of the reluctance stems from the fact that 95 percent of households are renter-occupied, and according to U.S. Census Bureau research, “renters are much less likely to mail back a census questionnaire than homeowners.”
One-third of the population in downtown Albuquerque lives in poverty, with almost another third in near-poverty – both risk factors for census participation. One-fifth of homes lack broadband – or any internet access at all, which will make the primarily online survey difficult to fill out.
“The big challenges in those areas are connecting to the folks who we know are likely to be undercounted,” said Amber Wallin, deputy director of New Mexico Voices for Children. “So people who may be poor or housing-insecure can be a real challenge in those areas, especially in communities that are changing.”
For every person missed, New Mexico loses federal grants for SNAP, CHIP, Medicaid, Title 1 school funding and more, according to estimates from the George Washington Institute for Public Policy.
Children, who are the most at risk population in New Mexico, are also among the least counted. Nationwide, Hispanic children were undercounted by an estimated 8 percent in the 2010 census, while children who were neither black nor Hispanic were still undercounted by 3 percent, according to the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization.
“Children are even more likely than the general population to be undercounted because they often see the intersection of those different factors that make people hard to count,” Wallin said. “So, poverty, housing insecurity, living in immigrant families or living in rural areas – children often lie at those intersections.”
An undercount of approximately 4,160 children, like New Mexico had in 2010, could shortchange New Mexico by up to $12.5 million per year in missed funding for crucial programs.
To address such concerns, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham established a state-level commission tasked with ensuring an accurate count and encouraging census participation. It was provided $3.5 million to disburse grants and assistance for community outreach.
“We need everyone who lives here to be counted,” said Tripp Stelnicki, director of communications for the governor’s office, in a statement to Searchlight. “Anything that might’ve discouraged participation, i.e., a loaded citizenship question, would be very bad news for New Mexico.”
President Trump finally backed down on the citizenship question a week after the Supreme Court dealt a blow to his efforts.
“We simply cannot complete the litigation in time to carry out the census,” said Attorney General William Barr in a televised press conference from the White House. Meanwhile, Trump has announced plans to pursue the data through other methods.