The NCSL Blog

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By Christi Zamarripa 

The census will determine more than $1.5 trillion in federal spending, according to a new report from the George Washington Institute of Public Policy.

In August, a worker gets ready to pass out instructions in how to fill out the 2020 census during a town hall meeting hosted by U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Georgia, at a senior center in Lithonia. CREDIT JOHN AMIS / ASSOCIATED PRESSThe report examines the magnitude with which the federal government relies on census data to direct the distribution of federal funding to the states. The federal funds are determined with formulas based on census counts and data.

Based on data from the 2010 census for fiscal year 2017, the federal government distributed $1.504 trillion to state and local governments, businesses, nonprofits and households across the nation. According to the report, this figure accounted for 7.8%  percent of gross domestic product. By comparison in 2018, Apple became the first American trillion-dollar company when it achieved a $1 trillion valuation in the stock market.  

The Counting for Dollars 2020 Project looked at 316 federal spending programs. All of these programs vary substantially in their dependence on census data. The report outlines the distribution of spending for the census-guided programs by program type, geographic level, data use, program size and other characteristics.

According to Andrew Reamer, the report's lead author, the common element of these programs is the state’s receipt of its fair share of federal funds. Census-derived data will not determine the “size of the pie” but “who gets what slice of that pie.” This means funds not received in one state due to an undercount are distributed to all the other states.

Besides how federal funds will be distributed to the states for the next decade, the census provides the basis for congressional apportionment, state’s votes in the Electoral College, redistricting and other public and private decisions. Be ready, 2020 Census Day is coming soon.

For more information on the census and what actions states are taking to ensure an accurate count, see NCSL’s webpage on census legislation and resources.  

Christi Zamarripa is a policy associate with NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.