The Economic and Political Stakes of an Accurate Census Count

Written by on March 4, 2010 in Demographics, Economics, Elections, Legislation with 0 Comments
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This week, the U.S. Census Bureau began distribution of the questionnaires for the 2010 Census. The results of the Census will form the basis for the apportionment of congressional districts and the distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds, as well as serving to guide community-planning decisions across the country. However, Census 2010 has not been without its share of controversy. In October of last year, for instance, Senator David Vitter (R-LA) proposed an amendment to the Commerce, Justice and State appropriations legislation which would cut off financing for the 2010 Census unless the survey includes questions about immigration status. Additionally, some pro-immigrant activists have suggested that immigrants sit out the Census this year to protest the federal government’s failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform. Yet this would be self-defeating given the high economic and political stakes of an accurate count, and that fact that immigrants are already among those demographic groups who are typically under-counted in the Census.

Anyone living in an area that suffers from a large under-count of immigrants stands to lose out on political representation and federal funds. For instance, an undercount of Latino immigrants would impact anyone living in a state such as California, New York, or Illinois that has a large population of Latino immigrants—meaning that everyone in those states stands to lose political representation and access to economic and educational opportunities if immigrant residents aren’t fully counted in 2010.

According to a 2009 research report from the Census Bureau, roughly $435.7 billion in federal grant and direct assistance money “was allocated based on Census Bureau data”—including “annual population estimates, Decennial Census data, and other Census Bureau sources”—in Fiscal Year (FY) 2007. The 10 federal programs accounting for 83.4 percent of all funding “allocated annually using population and/or income statistics,” as of FY 2007, were:

  • Medical Assistance Program {Medicaid} ($203.5 billion)
  • Unemployment Insurance ($35.9 billion)
  • Highway Planning and Construction ($34.2 billion)
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ($30.3 billion)
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families ($16.5 billion)
  • Federal Pell Grant Program ($13.7 billion)
  • Title I Grants to Local Educational Agencies ($12.8 billion)
  • Special Education Grants to States ($10.8 billion)
  • National School Lunch Program ($7.8 billion)
  • Head Start ($6.9 billion)

As the National Research Council notes in a 2009 study, “historically, a key issue has been, and remains, the differential net undercount of blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans, which has resulted in the repeated underrepresentation of areas in which those groups make up a large fraction of the residents. In particular, the differential net undercount of these groups has led to their receiving less than their share of federal funds and political representation.” In other words, because blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans tend to live in particular areas, everyone in those areas receives less political representation and federal funding if blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans are under-counted.

Photo by thomasclaveirole.

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