The once-in-a-decade census has profound and long-lasting impacts on communities across the United States, effecting not only the distribution of political power between and within each of the 50 states, but also the allocation of trillions of dollars in federal and state funds.
In fiscal year 2017, the federal government dispersed over $1.5 trillion through 316 spending programs that relied on data from the 2010 Census, according to Counting for Dollars 2020, a report produced by Research Professor Andrew Reamer for George Washington University.
The vast majority of that federal spending, around $1.47 trillion, consisted of financial assistance programs, of which Medicare, Medicaid and smaller medical assistance programs make up the lion’s share, around $1.1 trillion.
More than $29 billion of those federal funds went to Washington state, according to the report, of which $21 billion consisted of Medicare and Medicaid payments. The remaining $8.3 billion funds programs for state residents including the Pell Grant, food stamps, low-income housing, and transportation investment programs, to name a few.
Washington state also uses census data to distribute certain taxes back to local communities. Some of these “state shared revenues,” such as gas taxes, liquor and marijuana excise taxes, criminal justice taxes and others, are distributed based on population estimates derived from census data.
For example, the Washington State Department of Transportation estimated that cities will receive over $91 million in gas tax distributions, which are based largely on population, in 2022, while counties are projected to receive nearly $139 million, according to a report from the Seattle-based Municipal Research and Services Center.
But once all of those federal and state dollars have been distributed, the census can still play a major role in determining how funds will be used. Communities may use the data to determine where to invest in transportation improvements, for example.
“Local planners may want to decide where to put a bus stop and may use the census to determine that,” said Mike Mohrman, State Demographer for the Washington state Office of Financial Management. “If you have to walk 500 feet or a mile, that’s a big difference to you.”
And governments are not the only entities using census data to determine their growth strategies: businesses use the census to decide where to build factories and stores, developers use the census to determine where to build new homes, and citizen organizations use the census to identify needs and monitor trends.
For all of these reasons, the accuracy of the 2020 Census is critical to the economic well-being of communities across America and Washington state.
“For every 100 households missed in the 2020 Census count, the state could lose up to $5.8 million, which would affect the ability to support children, veterans, senior citizens and middle- and low-income families adequately,” wrote the Office of Financial Management in a census primer. “An accurate count of Washington's communities will ensure the fair distribution of taxpayers' funds and political representation.”