2010 census set to start in remote Alaska village

NOORVIK: Population data affect federal funding and political power.

July 30, 2009 

About 640 people live in Noorvik. Give or take.

Want the exact head count? Check back next year when the Inupiat Eskimo village is expected to become the first town in America to be counted in the 2010 census.

U.S. Census Bureau officials let news of Noorvik's preliminary selection spill during a presentation Thursday in Anchorage as the bureau prepares for months of counting households in Alaska's remote towns and villages.

And the cities too.

The census, conducted nationwide every 10 years, isn't just about counting people. It represents money, with the results used to determine how much Alaska gets in federal funding for Medicaid and other programs. The numbers can even cost politicians their jobs, as the state redraws voting districts after each census.

Anchorage and the Mat-Su could pick up a seat in the Legislature, for example, while Southeast Alaska stands to lose one because of population declines, said state demographer Greg Williams.

The 2000 census counted 626,900 people in Alaska, Williams said. The state estimates the population has grown by about 8.4 percent, to 679,700, as of 2008.

The latest count comes as researchers puzzle over an apparent migration from Alaska's villages to larger towns and cities. The Aleutian Region School District, for example, plans to close a school in Nikolski in the fall because of low enrollment, according to the state Education Department.

"You can go all the way down the Alaska Peninsula and out to the Aleutian Islands, and all the districts have been declining," said Superintendent Joe Beckford.

A recent report by the state Division of Community and Regional Affairs said the population in rural Alaska dropped by 3.6 percent between 2000 and 2008.

High fuel prices last year sparked talk of a rural exodus, but a May 2008 study by the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage said the trend can't be blamed on energy costs alone.

"What makes this census particularly timely and anticipated is that there's competing conventional wisdoms and a lot of discussion going on about what is really happening," said Steve Colt, associate professor with the institute.

"We don't really even know the extent and nature of migration in terms of who is moving (where), let alone why."

AN EARLY START

The Census Bureau plans to hire about 2,500 census takers to go door-to-door in cities and towns across the state. That means using float planes, snowmachines and dog sleds to reach households across 586,000 square miles, according to the bureau.

"The last census, we had people go up the upper Yukon (River) 20 or 30 miles to interview a fur trapper," said Deputy Regional Director Mike Burns.

The census-taker jobs last six to eight weeks, said Mark Tanguay, manager of the Anchorage census office. Currently they pay $17.50 an hour, though Alaska census officials said Thursday that rate could change.

In remote communities, census takers are expected to visit each household, surveys in hand. City dwellers can expect to get a census questionnaire in the mail.

In the past, some households received a "long form" survey, with detailed questions about families' income and education -- whether they've moved in the past five years and how they heat their home.

This time, all the surveys are short and focus on just a few questions: How many people live in the house? How old are they? Does the family rent or own?

Census Day for most of the country is April 1. But the bureau plans to get an early start in remote Alaska so census takers can avoid spring break-up and catch villagers before they leave to hunt or fish in warmer weather.

The 2000 census began in the Western Alaska village of Unalakleet.

Burns said the selection of Noorvik to start next year's count is preliminary and that the bureau was looking at other villages, too.

But during the Thursday workshop in Anchorage, the Noorvik selection was presented as a certainty followed by a "you didn't hear that" from census officials.

Acting Noorvik City Administrator Bobby Wells said he hadn't heard for certain Thursday whether his hometown will begin the count. But if so, he said, the Kobuk River village will be ready to feed any visiting census takers the town's traditional Native food -- from caribou to sheefish chowder.

"You'll have the moose barbecue. There's always beaver and bear," he said. "Seal, all the animals that we hunt and fish up here."


Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at adn.com/thevillage. Twitter updates: twitter.com/adnvillage. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

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