New Report Says $1.5 Trillion in Federal Funding to States and Localities Annually Depends Upon Good Census Count

As if the stakes for the 2020 Census were not already high, a new report released today shows that more than $1.5 trillion dollars a year in federal funding distributed to states and localities is derived from Census data. The news is the latest finding from the “Counting for Dollars 2020″ project led by Professor Andrew Reamer at George Washington University, who has been studying the issue since 2009.

The annual total of $1.5 trillion is a significant increase from the project’s last major compilation published in May of this year because the data has been updated from the FY2016 to the FY2017 federal budget, and the project team expanded their research from 55 large federal programs to a complete list of 316 federal programs that rely on census derived data.

According to the new report from the George Washington Institute of Public Policy at George Washington University, “Census-guided federal spending programs vary substantially in terms of size, geographic focus, and extent of reliance on and uses of census-derived data. The common element across these programs is that a state or area’s receipt of its fair share of federal funds depends on the accuracy of its census population count.”

Professor Reamer added, “While several studies by Congress and Census Bureau itself over the decades have done a fair job of describing this impact, the new report is the most comprehensive and robust compilation to date of federal programs that use census data to fairly distribute federal funding.”

The report was released today at an event hosted by the National League of Cities in Washington, D.C. with many representatives of census stakeholder groups who have been working for years on a fair, complete, and accurate 2020 count.

Ms. Beth Lynk, Director of Census Counts Campaign, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said the report’s findings drive home how important a quality count is next year, particularly for communities historically undercounted.

“Every community and every state has a critical choice to make: go all in on ensuring a fair and accurate Census or miss out on a pot of more than $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding to support your schools, roads, and health centers.”

Tom Beers, Executive Director, National Association for Business Economics (NABE), said, “…the Census is the backbone of the nation’s statistical system and the basis of everything that we know about the economy. Reliable Census data is essential to the ability of economists to inform business decisions at their companies.”

“Our Census Project stakeholders have always known that the fiscal health of our local communities was incredibly dependent upon a good census. This new data, thanks to Professor Reamer and his team, shows that total is  almost double what we previously understood. That gives a whole new meaning to an undercount and how local communities can lose out and be shortchanged if they don’t stand up to be counted,” said Census Project co-director Mary Jo Hoeksema.

Howard Fienberg of the Census Project said, “Think about it: $1.5 trillion a year over the next decade is $15 trillion in fairly-distributed funding for state and local communities. There can’t be any stronger motivation for every town, city, county, and state to fully mobilize for a quality 2020 count.”

Counting Young Kids in the South for the 2020 Census

Young children had a higher net undercount in the 2010 Census than other age groups — 4.6 percent, a rate that has “tripled since 1980 while the net undercount rates for most other demographic groups have improved,” according to researcher Bill O’Hare of O’Hare Data and Demographic Services LLC. In his latest research brief, O’Hare suggests that the “biggest problem” in counting young children in the 2020 Census is likely to be in the South.

“Of the 100 large counties with the highest net undercount rates for young children” in 2010, he said, “72 are located in the South.” In addition, “the problem is not confined to the large urban centers of the South. The net undercount of young children in the rural South is much higher than the net undercount of young children in rural areas of other regions.”


O’Hare emphasized that “counting young children accurately in the 2020 Census should be a high priority.”

Read O’Hare’s new research brief: “Counting Young Kids in the 2020 Census: Don’t Overlook the South.”

2020 Census Could Be Hobbled Absent Full-Year Appropriation

“Congress has got to step up and fund what they have been insisting on for so many years,” observed Tom Temin of the Federal News Network, in an interview on November 5, 2019 with Census Project co-director Howard Fienberg.

While operating on a continuing resolution is “doable for a lot of parts of the Federal government,” Fienberg commented that the decennial census doesn’t operate the same way, “and it is something that is on a timetable that is extremely strict and rigid,” having been set out that way for decades. “It is required by the Constitution, and law requires that it be done by a certain date.”

The Census Project recently urged Congress to “provide full-year funding for the 2020 Census as soon as possible, whether as part of a package of final spending bills, or in a new Continuing Resolution.”

Fienberg continued: “If you screw up along the way, because you don’t have enough money… you’re going to get an incomplete and inaccurate census.”

Listen to the full interview on the Federal News Network.

Study Shows Bipartisan Public Support for Census Bureau

Public support for the Census Bureau crosses the political aisles.

According to a new study from the Pew Research Center, 69% of respondents had a favorable opinion of the Census Bureau, with only 16% holding an unfavorable opinion.

Pew further breaks down the sample along partisan lines, where the Census Bureau sports 71% support from Republicans and 73% from Democrats.

A Fair Census Supports Shared Economic Opportunity

This blog was originally posted by Spotlight on Poverty & Opportunity on October 16.


By Indivar Dutta-Gupta, Co-Executive Director, and Cara Brumfield, Senior Policy Analyst, Georgetown Center on Poverty & Inequality.

How would we know if poverty was growing or shrinking in our country? We depend on annual poverty data from the Census Bureau, data that depend in part on the once-a-decade constitutionally-mandated census. And as the only attempt to create a universe of data that includes every person living in the U.S., the census helps us understand the characteristics, challenges, and opportunities that our communities hold. As a result, the census is essential to addressing poverty on the national, state, and local levels. And the implications for economic opportunity extend far beyond quantifying hardship.

Decennial census data also help target over $1.5 trillion in federal funds to states, localities, and families each year for programs that help people with low incomes gain access to vital resources like food, housing, and healthcare. A fair and accurate count is essential to the appropriate distribution of these funds. Decennial data are used to apportion representation in Congress and the Electoral College, and to draw district lines for state legislatures and local boards. It’s the beating heart of American democracy—and being counted is a first step toward political empowerment.

Bottom line: the decennial census is about money, political power, and understanding the needs and characteristics of our population so that we can make smart decisions about how to solve social problems.

The Census Bureau aims to count everyone once, only once, and in the right place. This commitment is particularly tested when it comes to hard to count groups, like people of color; LGBTQ people; people experiencing homelessness; undocumented immigrants; people with disabilities; people with low incomes; and others. Geographic areas can also be considered hard to count, and people in or near poverty make up almost 50 percent of the U.S. population that lives in hard to count communities.

The count helps us understand our communities—and ourselves as a nation. 

The census allows us to measure, understand, and address poverty. The official poverty threshold is updated using the Consumer Price Index (CPI-U)—which relies on a sample of households that is based on the decennial census.

Other important surveys rely on the decennial as well. Census-derived data help uncover evidence of racial discrimination in voting policies, establish disparate impact of housing policies, and evaluate discrimination in employment. They also help us to understand and address health disparities and allocate funds to low-income schools and school districts.

Census-derived data guide eligibility for foundational support programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which kept over three million people out of poverty in 2018. For example, SNAP household eligibility and benefits levels are determined using the poverty thresholds derived from census data. Census-derived Local Area Unemployment Statistics are used to waive the SNAP benefits time limit for adults without disabilities and without dependents in areas with high unemployment. This means that more SNAP participants can keep their food assistance when jobs are hard to come by.

The census matters for fair funding. 

Census data help direct $1.5 trillion annually in federal funding for programs. These essential services include Medicaid, which helps over 66 million people with low incomes access health care services. In 2016, $360 billion of federal Medicaid funds were distributed to states, primarily to reimburse state Medicaid costs. Reimbursement rates are based partly on census population data. States with population undercounts could be awarded less funding, which might incentivize them to cut Medicaid spending by limiting access, services, or both. The health of millions of people is at stake. Census-derived data guide funding for many other programs as well. These include education programs like Title I funding, Special Education Grants, and the Head Start Program; and nutrition assistance programs like SNAP and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Other programs that rely on census data include the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and the Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers Program.

The census matters for political power. 

A fair and accurate census count is central for ensuring that political power is distributed fairly, as population counts are used to apportion seats in Congress and to draw district lines at the state and local levels. Participation in the census, therefore, is especially important for groups who are politically disenfranchised, including many hard to count groups. Yet, these groups face increased barriers to being counted. For example, anti-immigrant political rhetoric is stoking fear and distrust of government among immigrant communities and communities of color – communities which bear a disproportionate burden of poverty – making it less likely that they will participate, potentially diluting their political power as a result.

It is not hyperbolic to say that the health of our democracy depends in part on stakeholders taking action to get out the count. The American Library Association, for example, is creating resources to help local libraries support the count in their communities. Others, like the NALEO Educational Fund, are leading advocacy efforts to ensure a fair and accurate count. The scope and scale of the challenge creates a range of opportunities for funders, politicians, nonprofits, and everyday Americans to get involved. The bureau has an enormous task ahead of it, and it will take all of us to help them get it right.

The Census Project Urges Full-Year Funding for the 2020 Census, ASAP

The leaders of The Census Project (, a coalition of 700+ national, state, and local organizations in support of the decennial census, urgently appealed to Congress today to “provide full-year funding for the 2020 Census as soon as possible, whether as part of a package of final spending bills, or in a new Continuing Resolution.”

According to the Census Project, “the Census Bureau must have the certainty of full funding for the decennial census now, so that it can commit sufficient resources for final preparations, major operations, and expanded activities targeting hard-to-count communities, without concern that its funding may fall short of need.” Absent the certainty of funding, the Bureau might have to curtail important decennial census activities, like outreach, advertising, cybersecurity measures, or staff hiring.

The letter reminded Congress that “the constitutionally mandated 2020 Census will shortly be in full swing,” with most American households receiving 2020 Census forms not long after the expiry of the latest FY20 Continuing Resolution. “The census year has already begun.”

Lost time in the 2020 Census can no longer be made up. The Census Bureau now faces “two hard statutory deadlines: Census Day on April 1, 2020; and the December 31, 2020 requirement to deliver the Apportionment Count to the President and Congress. The window of opportunity to ensure a successful 2020 Census is closing.”

Should a second continuing resolution be required, the Census Project urged including “a full year appropriation of no less than the Senate committee-reported amount of $6.7 billion for the 2020 Census. Preferably, the Senate will soon consider and pass a full year FY 2020 Appropriation for the Department of Commerce which will provide the Census Bureau with all it needs.”

Read the full letter.

Former Census Directors Urge Congress to Provide Full-Year Funding for 2020 Census Immediately

A bipartisan group of former directors of the U.S. Census Bureau wrote to Congress today urging “a full-year appropriation for the 2020 Census as soon as legislatively possible, to avoid disruptions in the launch and steady implementation of robust census operations.”

The seven directors, who served under both Republican and Democrat White Houses, arrived as the full Senate is considering a “minibus” package of Fiscal Year 2020 appropriations bills, including the CJS bill that includes funding for the Census Bureau and the decennial census.

“We are deeply concerned that the 2020 Census effort could be hampered if the Census Bureau does not have the certainty of a full year funding level soon, whether the vehicle for such funding is a final Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations bill (standing alone or in an Omnibus appropriations package) or a second Continuing Appropriations Resolution,” said the directors.

The “best chance,” they said, for the Bureau to count “all states, localities, communities, and population groups at equal levels of accuracy and coverage” will be for “the director and senior officials” to know they have “the resources available for final preparations and the entire enumeration process as soon as possible.” The former Census Bureau Directors recognized “that a budget that recognizes the challenges at hand is one of the most prudent investments this nation can make to strengthen our democracy, support informed decision‐making in the public and private sectors, and offer transparency in resource allocation and policy outcomes.”

Read the full letter.