The Census: Everyone Counts

Graphic of U.S. map superimposed by silhouettes of peopleWhich states deserve more seats in Congress? Which communities need a new grocery store? Without the census, we wouldn’t have a clue.

April 5, 2020

In a place like Deep East Texas, there’s no easy way to reach all 385,000 of its residents. This is a rural area where one home is miles from the next and many people lack internet access. Census officials know that getting an accurate count of rural communities like this will take some legwork. Ordinarily, they would send staff to public gatherings like football games and church services, urging locals to complete their census forms, even bringing tablets so they can do it on the spot.

Collected once every ten years, census data is the foundation for countless decisions. It determines which states gain or lose seats in Congress, where Medicaid funding flows, which counties get new schools and hospitals, and which town might warrant a new shopping mall. But the rapid spread of COVID-19 is putting exceptional strain on the 2020 census, forcing the Census Bureau to eliminate the in-person efforts that would reach communities like Deep East Texas.

That means individual citizens have an important duty to spread the word about the 2020 census. Here’s why an accurate census is so important, and how you can help.

Congressional Districts

After every census comes another once-a-decade occasion: congressional reapportionment. Because the number of seats in the House of Representatives is fixed at 435, when states gain or lose population, they also gain or lose congressional seats. This year, experts estimate that seven states will likely gain seats while ten others will lose a seat.

States that win or lose representation in Washington will quickly begin working to redraw district lines, a contentious and often highly political process that inevitably leaves some people unhappy. A heavily minority community may want to stay part of a district that usually elects a minority representative. A politically moderate district may not want to see itself broken up and folded into strongly Democratic or Republican districts. Existing members of Congress don’t want to lose their jobs. The numbers that determine all those outcomes come from one place: the census.

Federal Funding

According to researchers at George Washington University, census data will dictate the allocation of roughly $1.5 trillion in federal funding to state and local governments each year. Altogether, 316 federal programs rely on census data to determine the amount of funding states get for various services. Huge chunks of that sum pay for Medicare and Medicaid, and the remainder funds all manner of programs: SNAP (also known as food stamps), Section 8 housing vouchers, highway construction, and small business loans, to name just a few.

Some programs rely more heavily on census data than others, and a few are particularly sensitive to changes in the numbers. Examples include Title I grants to needy schools, WIC nutritional funding for children and pregnant women, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which provides health insurance to one in eight American children.

Business Growth

The corporate world says that the census underlies all kinds of business decisions, with businesses large and small poring over census data when figuring where to expand, what products to offer, and how much to charge. In an op-ed for The Hill, two business advocates write that “financial institutions use data to identify sound lending opportunities, and it assists real estate appraisal companies to understand current and future housing demands.” Media company Nielsen uses it to calculate television ratings and set advertising rates.

The census and the American Community Survey, an annual mini-census, tell retail chains which communities are attracting younger families who are likely to be frequent shoppers or are probably planning to buy homes soon. The National Association of Home Builders told Marketplace that their organization uses “ACS data on a daily basis, without exaggeration.”

Budget Strain

In a report by the American Enterprise Institute, two experts write that our nation’s founders “recognized the value of data.” But turning 325 million people into useable data points is neither easy nor cheap, and since 2014, budget cuts have forced the Census Bureau to do more with less. The agency has cut thousands of temporary workers and shifted some activities online. It abandoned plans to test strategies for reaching out to Spanish speakers, rural residents, and minority communities.

If you haven’t filled out your census form yet, do it now, whether online, by mail, or over the phone. When you’re done, take a few minutes to encourage people in your community to do the same: share these Census Bureau graphics on your social media channels, mention it in your calls and videochats with friends, or shout it to your neighbor – from six feet away, of course.

Learn More

Local Trust: This isn’t just any academic report; it’s a collaboration between a census expert at Harvard and the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky. They write that with this year’s census facing multiple challenges – mistrust of government and institutions, disinformation campaigns, new technology – local leaders will be critical to getting their communities to respond – via Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy

End of an Era? The U.S. census has another problem: it’s expensive. This year, it’s expected to cost $16 billion. In an age when Facebook has many more data points on Americans than the census could ever collect, will our once-a-decade count live to see 2030? – via The New Yorker

Fuel for Justice: Michigan environmental activists recently used census data as ammunition in their fight to shut down a power facility that they said disproportionately burdened an African-American neighborhood in Detroit. Advocates say an accurate census is crucial because its results inform a variety of decisions that impact the environment – via WDET

Time Capsule: Census records are confidential for 72 years – an approximate lifetime. In 2012, the National Archives brought the results of the 1940 census online, offering a block-by-block glimpse into Americans’ homes – via National Archives

Privacy Side Effects: To keep individual census records confidential, as required by law, the Census Bureau thwarts nosy data brokers with complicated statistical techniques. One algorithm the bureau is testing adds and subtracts people from various locations to muddle the results. One possible problem? Wildly inaccurate results for rural and minority populations – via The New York Times

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This article originally appeared in the April 5, 2020 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and published articles — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

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