UPON RELFECTION: Census numbers count

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By Sherry Robinson

On the Navajo Reservation, you sometimes hear this comment: “They live so far out, not even the census takers can find them.” This is said with a bit of pride. Sometimes, envy.

Historically, Navajos and Apaches had good reason for not wanting the government to know where they were, but you can apply this comment across the state. The second most amusing sign in New Mexico, after “Flash Flood Warning” in a place that doesn’t look like it’s seen water since the creation, is “No Trespassing.” This in places you’d find only if you had a map or got completely lost.

We take privacy seriously.

So it wasn’t entirely surprising to learn in April that New Mexicans were the nation’s second worst laggards, after Alaska, in returning their census forms. Take our penchant for minding our own business, add in the fear of identity theft and the latest negative attitudes toward government, and you have a lot of people who are reluctant to stand up and be counted.

Which is a little ironic. In New Mexico’s 64-year struggle for statehood, one argument used against us was a low census. In 1905 Harper’s Weekly predicted pompously that New Mexico and Arizona together would never reach 1.5 million. It took a while, but in 2006 New Mexico passed 2 million, according to estimates by UNM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

At the end of April just 63 percent of us had returned our forms, pretty close to our 2000 rate of 65 percent. Counties with the lowest rates of return were Catron, Lincoln and Colfax. The highest was Los Alamos County. In May census workers began knocking on doors.

That’s been a good thing twice over. Who among us doesn’t know somebody who’s paying their rent with a census job? The nose counters number about 1,400 in each of the state’s three census offices in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces.

When it’s all over, we may improve our numbers, thanks to a couple of special efforts. One was the “abra su puerta” (Open your door) campaign in Spanish-language media, which helped census enumerators count undocumented workers. And the Census Bureau worked with the state’s tribes and pueblos, hired native people, sensitized non-Indian census workers to tribal culture, and aimed TV advertising at the Indian communities.

Joe Garcia, chairman of the All Indian Pueblo Council, has urged native people to be counted, pointing out the millions received by tribes for new housing or rehabs. An accurate count, he says, means better access to federal resources and fair representation in the Legislature. “We move forward when we participate,” says a poster aimed at Indian Country.

For everyone, federal dollars are just part of the picture. You probably know that local and state government rely on the census for everything from transportation planning to construction of new schools and senior centers. The census will also be used to redraw legislative and congressional districts. Communities post their census-derived demographics in hopes of luring new employers. And retirees looking for a nice place to relocate might seek out nice, small towns with certain amenities.

In places like Hobbs and Clovis, where specific developments are drawing new people, it’s even more critical to have an accurate head count. This also goes for little places like Cuba, Milan and Jemez Springs, where the source of vigorous growth is still a mystery.

The census is huge to private industry. When a town reaches a certain size, it becomes more interesting to retailers, developers and home builders. Want a better variety of shopping, restaurants and entertainment? Help boost your town’s numbers.

The clock is ticking. At a recent public event, the Census Bureau was handing out fliers urging people to “open your doors to a better future.” It’s not (yet) too late. Call 866-872-6868.