The Census Counts: Notes on the critical importance of the Census

Earlier this month, the Director of the Census Bureau abruptly retired after many decades of service to the Bureau.  There is much speculation and concern due to the suddenness of the Director’s departure, which, combined with expected shortfalls in funding required for the coming 2020 Census, raises real concerns for the agency’s ability to meet its Constitutionally required obligations.  While it will be some time before we learn the full impact of this sudden leadership upheaval, it would do us well to remind ourselves why we care about the Decennial Census and all the related activities of the Census Bureau.
The Census has been conducted every ten years since 1790, becoming increasingly complex and expensive with each decade.  In 2010, the Census cost a record $13 billion dollars and employed over 600,000 temporary workers.  The Decennial Census is routinely referred to as the largest peacetime activity of the United States Government.  There are shelves full of books explaining the importance and utility of the Census (and the related annual American Community Survey), and I want to focus on what I consider to be the most critical.
Geospatial analysis depends on an accurate Census. HealthLandscape is a web-based platform that allows users to visualize and analyze their data spatially.  To aid in that analysis, we provide a comprehensive library of demographic, social, behavioral, economic, and health-rated data.  Two rich sources of data for the data library are the decennial Census and American Community Survey, to name just a few of the incredible data programs from the Census Bureau.  Geospatial analysis would be far less valuable and provide fewer insights without the ability to compare users’ data to related Census data.
Business and Commerce rely on an accurate Census.  It’s been said that “What gets measured gets managed”.  Census data, and projections derived from these data, are core components of business planning in the United States. Retail outlets use the data to inform decisions for opening (or closing) brick-and-mortar locations.  Transportation planners use the information to plan new roads and highways.  The location of regional and larger airline network hubs is driven by the size of the population and changes that can be anticipated.  School districts use the information to determine whether to build new buildings or combine grades across multiple buildings to best meet the growing (or shrinking) student populations.  
Federal Expenditures require an accurate Census.  The allocation and redistribution of Federal tax revenue is based on Census counts for states, counties, cities, tracts and school districts, to name a few.  As such, Census counts equate to economic power.  Local, state, and national government organizations recognize this and work hard to make sure the decennial Census and related annual surveys are complete and accurate.  A recent Brookings Institution report shows that under-representation in the Census (people not completing the decennial Census form) costs states between $382 (Utah) and $2,564 (Vermont) PER PERSON in annual tax revenue redistribution.  For example, the State of Ohio, with a population of 11.6 million people has an expected $814 potential per capita loss for each person missed in the Census.  A one percent undercount would mean nearly 95 million dollars in lost federal expenditures (money returning to the State) EACH YEAR.  
Democracy and political franchise demands an accurate Census.   At a basic level, completing a Census form and being counted is every bit as important as fulfilling your obligation to vote.  The distributions of representatives at the state and national level are driven by Census counts.  As a result of the 2010 Census, the State of Ohio lost two seats in the US House of Representatives, while Texas gained four, with other states gaining and losing as well.  At the end of all the work, completing the Census form and being counted represents YOUR most basic level of political power.
Since the original 1790 Census directed by Thomas Jefferson, the United States has been fortunate to have a high-quality, apolitical snapshot of the US population.  As we move into the planning and testing phases for the 2020 Census, it’s important that we remind ourselves of the critical value of this decennial effort.
Remember: If you aren’t counted, you don’t count.
Mark A. Carrozza, MA


Related Posts