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High Stakes of the Census

The once-a-decade count is about political power and resources.

April 27, 2021

On Monday, the Census Bureau released the first results of the 2020 census. We learned the popu­la­tions of each state and how many seats each state will get in the House after the next redis­trict­ing cycle. After the past few years, we should breathe a silent prayer of grat­it­ude that it was all… normal. 

The stakes polit­ic­ally could­n’t be higher, mean­ing an accur­ate count is supremely import­ant.

Even a slight under­count could cost a state a congres­sional seat. And in New York, we learned, it did. Had 89 more New York­ers been coun­ted, the state would not have lost one of its 27 members of the House. 

But the census isn’t just about polit­ical power — it’s all about resources, too. In addi­tion to congres­sional seats and data with which maps are redrawn, census data determ­ines the distri­bu­tion of over $1.5 tril­lion annu­ally in federal funds for programs such as health­care, food assist­ance, and educa­tion. 

In other words, the census is also about public goods and how they’re distrib­uted.

The nation’s popu­la­tion growth over the past 10 years came entirely from nonwhite communit­ies. Latino, Black, and Asian Amer­ican citizens will account for 80 percent of the increase in eligible voters between 2010 and 2020. For communit­ies of color to receive polit­ical repres­ent­a­tion and crit­ical invest­ments commen­sur­ate with their size, they must be coun­ted fully. The census has histor­ic­ally failed to do so, contrib­ut­ing to entrenched inequal­ity.

These once-in-a-decade numbers come after an unusu­ally chal­lenged census: a pandemic, hurricanes, and wild­fires that displaced people through­out the coun­try and made canvassing door-to-door harder, on top of under­fund­ing and unpre­ced­en­ted polit­ical inter­fer­ence from the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. 

But not all signs point to an inac­cur­ate count: the Supreme Court blocked the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s attempts to add a citizen­ship ques­tion, and advoc­ates preven­ted the Trump admin­is­tra­tion from skip­ping essen­tial count­ing time. Nonprofits and state and local govern­ments worked tire­lessly for years to encour­age full parti­cip­a­tion in the census.

By the end of Septem­ber, we’ll see the detailed data set that includes demo­graphic inform­a­tion, includ­ing race and ethni­city. Will we get an accur­ate count of our nation’s grow­ing communit­ies of color, ensur­ing they receive the polit­ical power and fund­ing they’re owed? Or will the appor­tion­ment totals cover up racial or ethnic under­counts, like they did in 2010? 

Like I said, the census’s results are a big deal.