The Founding Fathers considered it so important, they included it in the Constitution. The practice of it, however, was nothing new.
Throughout history governments have taken a count, or census, of its people. This was generally done for purposes of taxation, military conscription — or even to take property from certain members of the citizenry.
The idea of a census, then, was nothing novel or new, but the founders’ use of it was. In the formation of the new system of government, the census would take on a noble and grandiose purpose.
Being a representative democracy, or a democracy in which the people would choose representatives to act and make decisions on their behalf, the census was seen as an indispensable practice. To determine the number of representatives and correctly allocate them, an accurate count of the people would be needed.
For a government that rested on the concept of popular sovereignty, or the idea that ultimate power and authority resides in the people, it would be vital to have reliable numbers. “Government of the people, by the people [and] for the people” necessitated routinely taking an accurate count of the people.
Thus, ingrained in our political and civic DNA is the act of the decennial (recurring every 10 years) census. However, in 2020, the successful carrying out of this crucial practice may be in jeopardy.
This past October, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appeared before Congress and requested an additional $3 billion in funding for the next census. The request was made as the Census Bureau is behind the curve on carrying out practices and testing technologies that will ensure an accurate 2020 count. To add to the growing worries of political leaders and outside observers, John Thompson, director of the Census Bureau, quit this summer.
A leaderless and underfunded Census Bureau, an agency that is behind schedule in performing essential run-up tasks, is making for a perfect storm of circumstances that could end up undermining and casting serious doubt on the accuracy and soundness of the 2020 census.
One important function of the census is determining the apportionment of political representation at various levels of government — as noted, that’s very important — but the census serves another critical function as well.
In its “Counting for Dollars 2020: The Role of the Decennial Census in the Geographic Distribution of Federal Funds,” The George Washington University of Public Policy observed: “As directed by Congress, several hundred financial assistance programs rely on data derived from the decennial census to guide the geographic distribution of funds.”
How much money are we talking about? “In Fiscal Year 2015, the 50 states plus the District of Columbia received $598.7 billion from 16 large census-guided programs.”
In Alabama, a successful or not-so-successful 2020 census count will impact the allocation of more than $7.5 billion per year in federal funding. Yes, that’s $7.5 BILLION a year. So getting the count right matters.
What programs in Alabama are affected by a good census count or lack thereof? Highway planning and construction, Title I grants to schools, Medicaid, school lunch programs, Section 8 vouchers, Medicare Part B (which covers services and supplies that are medically necessary to treat your health condition; this can include outpatient care, preventive services, ambulance services and durable medical equipment as well as part-time or intermittent home health and rehabilitative services, such as physical therapy) and a host of other programs.
A census count that is off could lead to a decade of missed or mal-allocated funding. That’s something that a perpetually cash strapped state such as Alabama can ill afford.
As Phil Sparks of the Census Project (a broad-based network of national, state and local organizations that support a fair and accurate 2020 census and comprehensive American Community Survey) noted, “All Alabamians benefit from a high-quality, complete and fair census.”
There are other ways an unsatisfactory 2020 census can affect communities, not just in Alabama but across the nation.
As early as 1870, the U.S. Supreme Court stated it was “unquestionable” the power of Congress to require both a numerical count and the collection of statistics during the census. And although some have maintained that the statistical/demographic data the Census Bureau collects is a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s right to privacy, the federal courts have consistently ruled otherwise.
This is important because the statistical/demographic data gathered by the census, as well as the American Community Survey (ACS, an ongoing survey that provides vital information on a yearly basis), is used by local governments and city planners, businesses, civic groups, social service agencies, researchers, foundations, you name it.
For example, whether it’s a large company looking to open new operations in a different city or state … a franchisee determining in what part of a city she should open her restaurant … a municipality trying to determine the most effective and efficient new bus routes … a state agency wants to know how many children don’t have health insurance … a county wants to know the best place to put a new school, senior center or health care facility — they turn to the statistical/demographic data collected through the census and the ACS. This information matters!
A fully funded and supported, detailed and thoroughly executed census is critically important — not just for our democracy, but for the economic and civic success of our communities, states and the nation. The preamble to the Constitution starts off with “We the People …” It is our decennial census that allows us to see clearly who “we” are. Let’s make sure that picture in 2020 is a clear and accurate one.