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Census Coalition Working To Help Ensure Accurate Count

U.S. Census Bureau

The upcoming 2020 census involves the same participation challenges as it does every 10 years. But Hawai?i has a few unique challenges of its own that could put Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders at risk of being undercounted. One coalition is working to help ensure an accurate count.

Each year, federal programs use census-derived data to dish out billions of dollars in grants and financial assistance. Funding is also made available to communities to carry out the count.

Still, some communities are hard to count and lower counts equal less federal funding for the state.

According to the 2010 census, there were more than 350,000 Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in Hawai’i. But K?hi? Lewis, president of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, says census data on these populations have historically been inaccurate. 

"I think there’s a number of reasons. One is mistrust in government. People don’t understand census. Lack of education. Hopefully we can knock down some of those barriers," he said. 

Lewis’ organization heads the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Island Complete Count Committee; Lisa Watkins-Victorino is part of that coalition. She’s with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and says one of the causes of low census participation is that people don’t realize how much federal funding impacts their daily lives.

"So if you have children who are taking advantage of the school lunch program, it’s heavily subsidized by federal funds. If you have anyone in your ‘ohana who uses Medicaid, that is heavily subsidized again. If you are driving on a road, they are heavily subsidized by the federal funds that are based on the count. It’s all around us," she said. 

State Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole says he’s optimistic that the count will be better in 2020 because of the recent activism across the state.

"I’m talking about Sherwoods, Mauna Kea, Kahuku, you have people in different communities who feel like they haven’t been heard, like they haven’t been paid attention to," he said.

Hawai’i?s growing Pacific Islander communities also have unique issues, like language barriers and a lack of experience with the census. 

"It’s really, really important that we get our community to understand, either by hiring people that can speak the language that they speak also understand the culture that they come from," said Josie Howard, director of a service program for Micronesians called We Are Oceania.

Esther Kia??ina with the Pacific Basin Development Council works with Pacific Islanders but plans to broaden her outreach to other immigrant communities.

"We’ll also be targeting the Southeast Asian community and the Filipino communtiies because many are new arrivals. We are very concerned that there will be a poor turnout because people are scared," she said.

She said with the Trump Administration coming down hard on immigrants, she’s concerned these communities will be undercounted. 

Most households can begin participating in the census in March. That’s when letters with instructions on the count are scheduled to be sent out. 

More information on how the census will be conducted is available on the Population Reference Bureau website.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at
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