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All of These Things Rely On the Census

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You’ve probably gotten a slip in the mail reminding you to fill out this year’s U.S. Census. This census aims to serve as an official, complete count of the American population, including information about its distribution of age, sex and living arrangements. And on April 1 — Census Day — the counting of the census results officially begins.

So, why should you fill out the census? For starters, it’s your legal obligation to do so, but beyond that, it determines a number of things that could directly impact you and your community.

Last updated: March 27, 2020

Your State's Representation in the Federal Government

State population counts are used to determine each state’s number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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Voting Accuracy

Census results are used by state and local officials to help determine congressional, state and local district boundaries to fulfill the one-person, one-vote rule.

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Health Program Funding

U.S. Census Bureau data was used to provide $675 billion in funding to 132 programs during the 2015 fiscal year, according to a 2020 working paper released by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Among those programs were several that benefited public health, including the Medical Assistance Program and HIV Emergency Relief Project grants. It’s also a major factor in determining funding for Medicaid, and undercounts could lead to underfunding for the program, according to the Tax Policy Center.

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New Road Construction

Funding for new roads and improvements to your local highways and freeways is largely determined by census data. In 2015, this data was used to provide $38.5 billion in funding to the Department of Transportation’s Highway Planning and Construction program, according to the working paper.

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School Meals for Your Kids

Census data is used to determine how much funding programs like the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program and Special Milk Program for Children receive.

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Funding for Educational Programs

Federal funding for educational programs that benefit students of all ages is determined by census data. These programs include the Federal Pell Grant program, Title 1 grants to local educational agencies, special education grants to states and the Head Start program.

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Public Assistance Programs

The census data is used to allocate funding for public assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Section 8 Housing programs.

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Wildlife Restoration

The U.S. Department of Interior’s Wildlife Restoration program funding is also determined by census data. For the 2015 fiscal year, the program received $720.9 million based on the data, the working paper found.

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Funding for Programs That Help the Elderly

Your parents and grandparents might rely on or utilize government programs that receive funding based on the census data. These programs include the Senior Community Service Employment Program, the Supportive Housing for the Elderly program and the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program.

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Funding for Programs That Help the Disabled

A number of programs that benefit those with mental and physical disabilities receive funding based on census data, such as the Disabled Veterans’ Outreach Program (DVOP), Developmental Disabilities Basic Support and Advocacy Grants and Supported Employment Services for Individuals with Significant Disabilities.

Homeland Security

The Homeland Security Grant program received $1 billion in funding based on census data, Reuters reported.

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Tax Credits

Tax credits can save you money — and funds allocated for credits like the low-income housing tax credit and the new markets tax credit are determined by census responses, Reuters reported.

Emergency Response Programs

Both natural and public health disasters require emergency response and aid from the government, and population data helps ensure that these needs are met. According to the Population Reference Bureau, “first responders and disaster recovery personnel use census data to help identify where and how much help is needed. Similarly, demographic details from the census assist epidemiologists and public health personnel in everything from tracking disease outbreaks, to combating the opioid epidemic, to improving child health.”

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Funding for Hospitals and Schools

Filling out the census helps ensure that your community gets its fair share of federal funds dedicated to building, improving and maintaining schools and hospitals.

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Bringing New Jobs to Your Community

Many businesses look at census data to determine where to build new offices, stores and factories. This could bring new jobs to your community.

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Increasing Housing Availability in Your Community

Real estate developers also use census data to determine where there is a need for more housing and neighborhood development. Based on the data, they could decide to build new homes and revitalize neighborhoods in your area.

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Supporting Local Initiatives

Census data is also used to support community initiatives involving legislation, quality of life and consumer advocacy.

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Determining What Grants Your Community Qualifies For

There are certain funding programs that are specifically for rural areas — such as funding to help build and upgrade wastewater treatment facilities — and programs that are specifically for urban areas — such as certain transit grants. The U.S. Census is used to determine which areas qualify as rural and which qualify as urban based on population thresholds. This determines the type of program funding your area can receive.

The Interest Rates You Get When You Take Out a Federal Loan

Census data is used to determine interest rates on federal loans, according to the Tax Policy Center.

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Your Future Social Security Payouts

Congress uses demographic data about the U.S. population’s future to plan for upcoming Social Security needs, The New York Times reported. If the data is inaccurate, the projections could be skewed, which could lead to underfunding the Social Security program and financial issues down the line.

How Coronavirus Could Derail the US Census

The U.S. Census is clearly a vital tool for the government to determine representation as well as the allocation of funding that helps our communities to thrive. But with Census Day falling in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the accuracy of this year’s population count could be at risk.

The U.S. Census Bureau, however, is encouraging Americans to fill out the census despite the circumstances: “We must fulfill our constitutional obligation to deliver the 2020 Census counts to the President of the United States on schedule, and we must adhere to our core task of counting everyone once, only once, and in the right place,” the organization said in a press release. “The key message right now for anyone with questions about how COVID-19 will affect the 2020 Census: It has never been easier to respond on your own, whether online, over the phone or by mail — all without having to meet a census taker.”

Still, there are obstacles standing in the way of getting an accurate population count.

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Some Populations Are Easiest To Reach In-Person

The Census Bureau’s Group Quarters Operation counts college students living on campus, prisoners and residents of nursing and group homes, and these populations are usually counted through in-person visits that were set to begin in early April, U.S. News reported. The Bureau is now asking facilitators of this operation to use other methods that don’t require in-person visits, though they did not elaborate on what those methods are.

Census data could be particularly skewed for college students who typically live on campus, but who are now at home as campuses around the country have closed.

“It’s an important part of the census because tens of millions of people live in group facilities,” Terri Ann Lowenthal, the former staff director of the House Census Oversight Subcommittee, told the U.S. News of the Group Quarters Operation. “And it’s equally important that they are counted accurately because [the count dictates] so much federal spending, including for programs that benefit these populations.”

Homeless populations are also typically counted in-person. Some cities, like the San Francisco Bay Area, have asked the Census Bureau to delay these counts while their shelter-in-place order is still in effect.

The Bureau also had planned several in-person promotional events to help encourage groups that are vulnerable to undercounts — like immigrants, the elderly and low-income earners — to participate in the Census, and these have now been canceled.

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