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States spend big on make-or-break 2020 census

California has already allocated $100 million as citizenship question looms

People protest outside the Supreme Court in April against the Trump administration’s proposal to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census. (Win McNamee/Getty Images file photo)
People protest outside the Supreme Court in April against the Trump administration’s proposal to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census. (Win McNamee/Getty Images file photo)

Freed from the budget constraints that dogged them during the last census and with a growing understanding of what accurate population counts mean for the possibility of federal dollars, states are spending at an unprecedented rate on efforts to boost census outreach.

California has already allocated more than $100 million on efforts aimed at getting all its residents counted in the 2020 census. No state approaches that total, but 10 others have enacted laws to spend a total of $31.7 million to make sure as many residents as possible are counted, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

That total could soon grow by $22.5 million if governors in Colorado, Georgia and Washington sign bills passed by their legislatures. Six other states have legislation pending that would allocate $112 million. That doesn’t include a proposal from California Gov. Gavin Newsom to add $54 million for next year.

Thirty states have also set up complete count committees, according to the NCSL. Such committees are tasked with outreach to county, municipal and community organizations that can help make sure more people are counted.

For many states, their spending for 2020 is a significant jump from past decades, especially 2010, when the recession restricted state budgets and led to a federal spending law to stimulate the economy that provided an extra $1 billion from the federal government. California’s previous high-water mark was about $20 million in 2000. The state didn’t even have a census outreach budget in 2010, according to Diana Crofts-Pelayo, a spokeswoman for the state’s complete count committee.


There are several reasons for the spike in spending. For one, states are convinced the federal government will not contribute what it did in 2010.

“Many state governments are putting in more of their own resources,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a member of the Connecticut Complete Count Committee and a consultant who has worked on census issues since the 1990 cycle. “They are concerned that federal funding … will be inadequate.” 

Counting everyone

There’s also a growing recognition of the value of an accurate count — and the cost of missing out on almost $900 billion per year in federal grants for transportation, social services, education and other programs.

Andrew Reamer, a professor at George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy, produced widely cited research on the impacts of the census on state budgets. Though the principle has long been apparent that more residents mean more federal funding, the data analysis by Reamer and others has gone a long way to quantify it.

Most federal programs that rely on census data to determine state-level allocations usually have certain eligibility requirements — like rural and urban designations from the departments of Agriculture or Housing and Urban Development — that make it impossible to determine the exact impact of a single undercount, he said. But for five large grant programs under the Department of Health and Human Services, the impact of the median undercount in fiscal 2015 was about $1,100, Reamer found.

“I don’t think it was as well known, and certainly not as well understood, before 2010,” Lowenthal said.

Having seen the potential impact of undercounting, Reamer said the money states are spending on outreach will be money well spent if it can lead to more accurate counts.

“It is highly valuable,” he said. “If California’s investment can make a big difference in the accuracy of the count, it makes sense to do that.” 

A 1 percent undercount for California could represent a potential loss of about $442 million in federal funds, according to Reamer’s formula, based on the state’s current population of about 40.2 million. 

In addition to the prospect of missing out on federal dollars, states are at risk of losing congressional seats as part of the census process. 

Fear of government

Much of the focus of states is on so-called hard-to-count residents, including immigrants, lower-income families and individuals, and people living in remote rural areas. Those same populations often have a higher degree of distrust in the government, especially the Trump administration, which has added a question on citizenship to the regular census form.

Responses to the census are used only for record keeping, and information gathered on individual households can’t be passed on to, for example, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But opponents of asking about citizenship say the mere question will scare noncitizens living in the country illegally from filling out their census forms, leaving their states and local communities undercounted on the survey.

The political controversy added to the challenge states and other entities with a stake in seeing federal funding flow to their communities already faced. As groups began to realize the importance of the census in determining those funding amounts, they also realized they could do more to increase those counts, said Maggie Osborn, chief strategy officer of United Philanthropy Forum. 

Organizations like Osborn’s worked to get an early start on education and outreach for the 2020 cycle. That was fortuitous, she said, after the census became a controversial political issue.

“I’m glad that we were activated early because it’s enabled us to sort of amp up a lot faster to try and counteract some of the challenges,” she said.

Distrust among immigrant communities isn’t new, said Bob Tracy, the director of public policy for the Minnesota Council on Foundations. But it’s gone to a new level with Trump in office. The administration has said the question is for data collection purposes only and won’t be used for immigration enforcement. But distrust lingers. 

“We hear about this all the time,” Tracy said. “We have protections [but] the community is not buying it.”

In part to counteract the distrust some hard to reach communities have of the federal government, much of the money states are spending is in the form of grants to local governments and organizations, who have stronger relationships and more credibility with those communities. 

“Somebody from the Census Bureau or someone from the state, nobody’s going to listen to that,” said Elizabeth Garner, the Colorado state demographer. “Whereas somebody actually from the community … there’s so much more trust.”

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