Five Facts: The Importance of the Census
Last week, President Trump refused to provide internal communication documents the House Oversight and Reform Committee subpoenaed to use in its investigation of the new citizenship question on the 2020 census form. Following this action, the Oversight Committee voted to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress.
These actions are the latest updates in what has been a volatile start to the 2020 census. Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution outlines that a complete count of United States residents should be conducted every 10 years. However, President Trump’s decision to include a question about citizenship has proven to be controversial.
Here are five facts about the census and how it is conducted once every decade.
1. Every 10 years the census gathers information on the population of the United States to determine how many representatives each state will get in Congress and how tax dollars will be distributed. NPR reports that most of the questions asked in the 2020 census will be similar to those asked in the past. This includes the number of people living or staying in a home on April 1, 2020, the name, sex, age, date of birth, and race of each person in the home, whether each person is of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin, or the relationship of each person to a central person in the home.
2. Once this data is collected, the federal government uses it to decide how to allocate an estimated $880 billion in federal funding every year until the next census. A recent report from George Washington University highlighted that more than 55 federal programs rely on census data to gauge how to allocate federal funds to state and local governments. These funds are used to pay for critical public services including health care, education, housing and infrastructure.
3. The government is not the only entity that relies on census data; businesses of all sizes do as well. According to NPR, the census is used by business leaders to show a detailed demographic picture of a potential future customer base, what this base may want and need from their business, and where to open new locations. Many businesses are also concerned that certain regions may not get sufficient federal funding critical to their own operations. For example, ride-sharing company Lyft is concerned that an inaccurate census count could lead to certain roads and bridges not getting the repairs they need, ultimately impacting the company’s ability to transport customers.
4. The process of counting every citizen in the United States is involved and there is room for error in the process, The Washington Post reports. First, the Census Bureau creates a master list of every one of the 135 million households in the entire country. After the Census Bureau publicizes how to participate and fill out the requisite form, each household gets a 10-question form in the mail (though residents can now fill it out online). If no one answers the census questions, the Bureau will send a representative to visit your house and ask you these questions in person. All told, this exercise is expected to cost close to $16 billion.
5. This year, the Census Bureau is expected to hire roughly 500,000 temporary workers to help ensure the count is completed efficiently and accurately. As of April 2019, the Bureau had received over 230,000 applicants for these roles. These employees are especially important in hard-to-count areas, which have high percentages of vacant housing units, multi-family housing units, and people living below the poverty level.
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