Five reasons a robust decennial census benefits all Americans

This blog was originally posted on Urban Wire on December 18. 

. . .

By Diana Elliott, Senior Research Associate, Urban Institute 

The past year has brought a flurry of news stories about the 2020 decennial census that reflect uncertainty about its success. Stories suggest several concerns, including persistent underfunding, the director’s unexpected resignation, challenges implementing technological innovations under budget constraints, and the potential appointment of a controversial leader.

This year and the next are critical for the planning and success of the decennial census, as field operations gear up nationwide for an effort so large that it increases the country’s labor force participation every decade. Recent events—including funding shortfalls, schedule delays, cancellation of key tests, and methodological concerns—have caused many to worry about the 2020 census, including the commerce secretary and the Government Accountability Office, which added the census to its “High Risk List” of government-wide programs in jeopardy.

The lack of appreciation for the importance of a robust and well-executed decennial census is also troubling. Declining response rates are one of the major drivers of escalating costs for conducting the decennial census. While some people are legitimately hard to count—because they live in remote areas, are transitory, or have language barriers, for example—others do not complete the questionnaire. If we all had a deeper appreciation for the census, it might face fewer challenges.

Here are five reasons a well-funded, robust, and apolitical decennial census is an important American asset, not just for researchers, but for all Americans.

1. It is a foundational tenet of our democracy.

The decennial census is mandated in article 1, section 2 of the US Constitution to ensure that “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers.” The founders of our country knew that a fair democracy was based on an accurate population count.

The decennial census is one of our country’s longest-standing legacies. It has been conducted every 10 years since 1790, and the rigor of its data has been a cornerstone for fair representation throughout the nation’s history.

2. It determines how to allocate spending for many federally funded programs.

In 2015, states received nearly $590 billion from 16 large federally funded programs, the allocation of which was determined by 2010 census counts. Programs covering health (Medicaid), infrastructure (Highway Planning and Construction), education (Head Start), and food security (National School Lunch Program) were among the allocations.

Research shows that certain groups—including people of color, renters, and young children—are more likely to be undercounted. Residents of every state have a vested interest in ensuring that their counts, including those typically undercounted, are as accurate as possible to receive a fair allocation of federal resources and to ensure civil rights.

3. It determines legislative districts and ensures accurate representation in Congress.

The decennial census is the basis for political redistricting and the apportionment of representatives across the 50 states. It also helps jurisdictions comply with the Voting Rights Act, which ensures that all voters have access to language assistance, if needed, when they cast votes in an election. Data collected in the decennial census ensure that democratic representation is fairly allocated.

4. It is the foundation for important data products and projections for the rest of the decade.

Census counts are the base population for national and state population projections, which are created for years between decennial censuses. Such projections constitute our country’s official population counts. Census counts are a key component of the weighting process for the American Community Survey (ACS) and ensure that those who participate in the survey adequately represent the American public. A rigorous decennial census matters for the total count of the population in 2020 and the accuracy of the data for the following decade, too.

5. It is a key information source for all groups and stakeholders.

Although only legislatively mandated questions are included on the decennial census (and ACS), the data collected are crucial not only for research institutions, but also for the business community, state and local governments, and historians and archivists. For example, commercial databases benchmark to population counts from the decennial census. Such data are then used by the business community to make better strategy, marketing, and development decisions. Without accurate census counts, decisionmakers would be hamstrung in their planning and development.

In our democracy, there are various ways to show up and be counted. When we cast a ballot in an election, our choice of leadership is counted. When we engage with leadership and political institutions, our voices and opinions are heard. When we complete our decennial census—whether by mail, online, or with an enumerator at our door—who we are is counted.

Demographics and our place of residence are the facts that undergird an accurate representation of our country and a fair allocation of resources. In an era when facts and data are threatened, maintaining the integrity of the decennial census should be front of mind for all Americans.

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