Congressional Rural Caucus Discussion on Census-Guided Financial Assistance To Rural America

This blog was originally posted by the Insights Association on October 22.


By Howard Fienberg, VP, Advocacy, The Insights Association and Co-director, The Census Project


On October 11, 2018, the Congressional Rural Caucus hosted a panel discussion on Capitol Hill about the importance of census-guided financial assistance to rural America. A new study from the George Washington Institute of Public Policy and the Census Project found that major rural-targeted programs that are guided by census data total about $30 billion a year.

Study author Dr. Andrew Reamer, research professor at the Institute, expanded upon details of his research, “Census-Guided Financial Assistance To Rural America,” for the audience of about 40 staff. Arthur Scott, associate legislative director for the National Association of Counties, explained some of the impact of those rural aid programs to counties his association represents, as well as ways in which county leaders use Census data further to benefit their communities. Finally, Howard Fienberg, VP advocacy for the Insights Association and co-director of the Census Project, focused on some of the challenges facing the 2020 Census in counting rural communities, which are surprisingly hard to count.

Opening with some Census history, Reamer sketched out the decennial headcount’s origins, back when Rep. James Madison proposed amending the Census Act of 1790 to include questions on population characteristics beyond those needed for apportionment so that Congress might “adapt the public measures to the particular circumstances of the community.” Over time, those questions and more became the statutorily-defined way to decide on the distribution of federal assistance programs.

In FY2016, Reamer said, about 320 funding programs used census-derived data to divvy up about $900 billion across the country. A sizeable majority of such assistance programs benefit both urban and rural areas, like Medicaid and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). At the same time, 55 census-guided assistance programs are only targeted for rural communities and distributed $30.7 billion in FY2016.

Drilling down into the six large rural assistance programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Reamer found more than $25 billion distributed per year to states, localities and households in the rural U.S., including for: low to moderate income housing loans; rural electrification; loans and loan guarantees; water and waste disposal systems for rural communities; rural rental assistance programs; business and industry loans; and the cooperative extension service.

According to Reamer, “the fair and equitable distribution of billions of dollars in federal financial assistance to rural communities depends on the accuracy and completeness of the 2020 Census.”

The ten states with the largest funding in Fiscal Year 2016 from rural programs, according to the study, were:

  1. Georgia – $1,435,939,900
  2. North Carolina- $1,369,804,196
  3. Virginia – $1,176,559,104
  4. South Carolina – $975,637,656
  5. Texas – $957,457,542
  6. Tennessee – $947,115,350
  7. Florida – $907,186,691
  8. Kentucky – $902,493,126
  9. Michigan – $862,138,937
  10. Missouri – $808,786,169

Attendees asked a wide variety of questions afterwards, including: expected impact of the added citizenship question on 2020 rural response; the state of funding for the decennial; what the sparsity of broadband access in some rural areas might mean for the new online 2020 response option; what Congressional offices can do to help increase rural response; and panelists’ opinions on Census Director nominee Steven Dillingham.

(For further reference, see the briefs from the Census Project and the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality on “Why the 2020 Census Matters for Rural America” and “Counting Rural America.”)