In case you haven’t heard, the 2020 decennial census data—detailed data about where people live in the U.S. and demographic characteristics such as age and race/ethnicity—will be released on Thursday. That data will have cascading effects on political power, the distribution of federal funds and general policymaking for the next decade. The data release was delayed by the pandemic, wildfires, a historic hurricane season, and policy choices throughout 2020.
With so much at stake, and so much uncertainty, the speakers at the NCSL Base Camp 2021 session “What’s Up With the Census?” addressed the two biggest concerns: the census for redistricting and the census for the distribution of federal funds.
“We have been working seven days a week on this and we have check-ins every day,” Kathleen Styles, chief of the Census Bureau’s decennial communications and stakeholder relations, said. The census takes years of planning to locate every single house in the country where data needs to be collected, she explained. And yet, not everything can be planned for. To be nimble, Styles said, the bureau created special operations to react to myriad challenges, including the mass migration of college students at the beginning of the pandemic—which coincidentally lined up with census day, April 1.
Given the uncertainty of the last year, many are wondering about data quality. Styles expects the data quality to be similar to prior censuses. Because public confidence in the data is essential, “We thought we had to be a whole lot more transparent than we’ve been in the past.” The bureau has already released data quality metrics and will continue to do so into 2023.
But why does it matter if the data is accurate?
One reason, according to Marcia Howard, the executive director of Federal Funds Information for States, is that federal funding for states is tied to population in most federal funding programs, including the largest program, Medicaid.
Howard discussed two types of grant programs. The first is competitive grants, which are numerous but often relatively small in total dollar amount. The second is formula grants, which make up over 90% of the actual dollars allocated to states. Federal funding makes up about 30% of each states budget on average, Howard said, accounting for about $2,000 per capita nationwide.
Howard is used to being asked how states can increase their access to federal funding, so when the question came up during the Q&A session, she had an answer tee’d up. “The first thing we say is to make sure your population is counted in the decennial census.” The more accurate the count, the more accurate your funding will be. Styles agreed, noting that while the census made a massive marketing effort to encourage people to respond, many states did as well this cycle.
After 10 long years of planning, adapting, evaluating and re-evaluating, the data from the decennial census will come on Thursday. Only then will we know truly “what’s up” with the census.
Wes Zielke is a legal intern with NCSL’s elections and redistricting program.