Spotlight Exclusives

The Decennial Census as a Key to Fighting Poverty, By William P. O۪Hare, Senior Consultant, the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Posted on

This past week, the Brookings Institution released a report and a set of tables showing how federal funding to states and localities is driven by figures from the decennial census. The total amount ($447 billion for fiscal year 2008) is astounding. The tables on the Brookings website provide data in much more detail, including the total amount of federal dollars going to each state, the 100 largest metro areas, and the 200 largest counties, as well as program-specific funding for the nation and each state. There are over 200 federal assistance programs that rely, in whole or in part, directly or indirectly, on decennial census statistics. Moreover, by my calculation, the amount of federal dollars distributed through funding formulas using census data has increased by nearly 50 percent over the past decade in real (inflation-adjusted) terms.

Many of the largest programs related to census figures are aimed at needy populations. The table below shows some of the largest anti-poverty programs that distribute funds based on census-derived figures.

Table: Selected Federal Assistance Programs Reliant in Whole or in Part on Decennial Census-Based Statistics to Distribute Funds (Fiscal Year 2008)



Medical Assistance Program


Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers


Special Education Grants to States


Title I Grants to Local Educational Agencies


Very Low- to Moderate-Income Housing Loans


State Children’s Insurance Program


Special Supplemental Nutrition for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC Program)


Section 8 Housing Assistance Payments Program (Project-Based Section 8)


Head Start



With so much riding on the census figures, states and localities can ill-afford to have their populations undercounted in the decennial census. For example, the State of California, which faces severe budget problems, received more than $63 billion in fiscal year 2008 from federal programs that rely on census statistics. These funds from the federal government provide a critically important source of assistance to needy Californians during this recessionary period.

Because of the ten-year cycle of the decennial census, an undercount means a jurisdiction gets less than their fair share of resources for the next decade. Given the precarious position of so many state and local budgets, it doesn۪t make sense to “leave money on the table” by allowing a census undercount.

Past research by the Census Bureau shows that high-poverty groups (for example, African Americans, Latinos, American Indians, and young children) are among the populations most likely to be undercounted. A National Academy of Sciences study found that more than 15 million people were missed in the 2000 Census, while millions more were double-counted. The census undercount is a double whammy for disadvantaged groupsthey have high poverty rates to begin with, and then their communities do not get their rightful share of federal funding for anti-poverty programs because they are undercounted in the census. Some studies have shown that undercounts can costs states over a billion dollars in lost income over a decade.

It is not too late for low-income advocates and organizations to help make sure everyone is counted in the 2010 decennial census.It is important to recognize that the Supreme Court has determined that everyone whose usual place of residence is in the United States is supposed to be included in the census count, regardless of legal status.

Many states and localities have already created Census Complete Count Committees to bring together various sectors of society to try and make sure everyone is counted.Advocates should make sure the low-income community is represented on these important committees.

Also, more than 200,000 organizations have become Census Partners to help promote awareness and participation in the census.

Below are several websites that provide information about various aspects of the census.

Census Bureau Website

U.S. Census Bureau

Regional Census Offices

2010 Census Jobs

Non-Profit Organization Websites

Leadership Conference on Civil Rights

Asian American Justice Center

National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO)

Funder۪s Census Initiative

The Census Project

The Brookings Institution

Nonprofit Voter Engagement Network

Population Reference Bureau

Population Resource Center

Frontera Asset Building Network

California Counts: A Funders Guide to Census

Nonprofits Count!

With the upcoming census determining the federal funding available to millions of low-income Americans for the next decade, now is a critical time for advocates to make sure that low-income Americans are counted and that they get their fair share of government services. Ensuring a fair census is an important opportunity to help vulnerable Americans, and it deserves our attention.

William P. O۪Hare is Senior Consultant with the Annie E. Casey Foundation

« Back to Spotlight Exclusives