Spotlight Exclusives

A Fair Census Supports Shared Economic Opportunity

Indivar Dutta-Gupta and Cara Brumfield, Georgetown Center on Poverty & Inequality Indivar Dutta-Gupta and Cara Brumfield, Georgetown Center on Poverty & Inequality, posted on

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.

Indivar Dutta-Gupta is Co-Executive Director and Cara Brumfield is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Georgetown Center on Poverty & Inequality.

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