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The Bridge: Making Sense of the Census

How this routine tally figures hugely in federal decisions

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More than just a head count

Every 10 years since 1790, the federal government has taken on the gargantuan task of conducting a national roll call, taking count of every single person who lives in the U.S., regardless of their citizenship status. This task is not just a matter of housekeeping. The results of the decennial census factor into major federal decisions, including how district lines are drawn, how many congressional seats each state gets, and how federal funding is distributed.

A decade’s worth of decision-making depends on every census. With lasting impacts at stake, how can the government make sure every person is accounted for?

In this edition:

  • The purpose of the tally
  • Barriers and hesitations
  • The fallout of a miscount
  • Why accuracy is key

To understand the importance of an accurate census count, I talked to POGO Senior Policy Analyst Sean Moulton. Sean has been leading POGO’s research into the census since 2017. You can explore POGO’s work on the 2020 census on our website.

But first, some context.

Every 10 years, the Census Bureau — an office under the Department of Commerce — sends out a form to every household in the country, requesting, among other things, the name, sex, age, birth date, race, and ethnicity of every person who lives in that household.

Response is mandatory, whether it’s via mail, phone, or, as of 2020, an online portal. If a household doesn’t answer, the Bureau will turn to other available data to make an educated guess.

The census data is then used to determine political representation and the distribution of trillions of dollars in federal assistance to states for everything: hospitals, schools, roads and highways, public transportation, veterans’ support, housing vouchers, food assistance — you name it.

“A lot of federal programs use census data to figure out where money should go and how much should go there,” Sean explained. “So, if we get the numbers wrong, we get the spending wrong. And we send more money to communities that don’t need it and less money to communities that do need it.”

The problem?

Collecting data on such a massive scale is far from easy.

“There’s a real reliance on states to help get the message out, to convince hard-to-reach and hard-to-count communities that they should respond to the census,” Sean told me. But states have dropped the ball on getting out the count before — and have even actively chosen to underplay the value of the census in the past.

Convincing people to participate is difficult at the individual level, too. The Census Bureau itself has tried to understand why. Language barriers, housing instability, unfamiliarity with the census, distrust of the government, and fear of surveillance and invasion of privacy all play a role. Lack of privacy in particular has caused issues in the past. Despite there being clear legal firewalls against census data being used by other agencies to enforce immigration laws, taxes, and warrants, that privacy has been majorly violated, and data has been horrifically misused before.

There’s also the recent issue of politicization of the census. In 2019, the Trump administration tried to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census at the very last minute, which could have intimidated people who weren’t citizens from participating. The Supreme Court blocked the effort, but the attempt may have had a chilling effect nonetheless.

The fallout 

These logistical challenges and people’s wariness of participation have historically jeopardized census data. In the 2020 census, 14 states were miscounted. Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Some Other Race, and Hispanic or Latino communities were largely undercounted, while the Asian population was among the communities that were overcounted in some states.

The impact? Undercounts could result in states getting fewer congressional seats, which happened in Texas and Florida. “If they hadn’t gotten their undercount, they’d have another vote in Congress, another electoral vote come the presidential election. That’s real political power,” Sean said. Undercounts can also cost communities the federal funds they need to have well-resourced schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and services.

Overcounts can have a similar effect, too. For example, a rural area that is overcounted can mistakenly be disqualified from funding that is reserved for small or isolated communities. Overcounts also lead to the misallocation and waste of federal funds that could have been extremely useful elsewhere. “The government spends trillions of taxpayer dollars each and every year, and we’re very concerned that too much of it is just spent poorly,” Sean explained. “What we desperately need is accuracy.”

Beyond accuracy, the intersection between census data and federal spending is a matter of equity. “Many of the federal assistance programs POGO has researched are lifelines of support for historically marginalized communities: people struggling to make ends meet, rural communities, people with disabilities, and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities,” Sean added. A miscount of those groups — whom the census has historically found “hard to count” — could translate into reduced support for populations that are often already under-supported.

Common cents 

The census occurs only once a decade, but it is very consequential. Smaller surveys are conducted in the interim, but they only serve as amendments to the baseline established at the start of every decade.

With congressional seats, taxpayer dollars, and crucial federal funding for communities that need it most on the line, it’s important that the census counts everyone accurately.

That starts with educating and convincing the public of the purpose and value of the census. But it also entails protecting the integrity of the census from politicization and ensuring that the information people provide the government is kept private and protected.

“If we can arm advocates who are supporting the census with information that allows them to better convince their communities and their policymakers that they need to engage fully with the census, it will benefit all of us,” Sean said.

Sean is currently working on a new resource that thoroughly breaks down, in dollar amounts, just how much federal spending is dependent on decennial census data, with the goal of establishing the importance of accuracy in this logistical endeavor. The resource is set to come out soon, and I’ll be sure to share it with you when it does. In the meantime, check out POGO’s past work on the census here.