The US Census Bureau runs a count of each person living in the US every 10 years, as required by the US Constitution. ATA is honored to have been selected to take part in the Austin-Travis County Census 2020 Complete Count Committee, a volunteer committee tasked with increasing awareness and motivation of residents to respond to the 2020 Census. In addition to work with the committee, ATA is focused on providing the community with information on the importance of the Census and its challenges. This will be the first post of a series leading up to the 2020 Census, which launches April 1, 2020. In this introductory post, we’ll provide an overview of the census and its impacts.

Overview of the Census

Run by the US Census Bureau, whose mission is to “serve as the nation’s leading provider of quality data about its people and economy,” the Decennial Census is mandated by the US Constitution and has been conducted every 10 years since 1790. The Census initially comprised of a few questions and has since expanded to include additional statistics such as relation to others in the household, age, race, and if the property is rented or owned by the residents. The 2020 Census will be the nation’s 23rd decennial census and will be used directly for Congressional apportionment, allocation of federal funding, and re-defining district lines at all levels of government.

In addition to these political and economic impacts, the census and additional surveys administered by the Census Bureau publishes datasets and statistics to the public for a broad range of use. This is commonly used for social research and for companies to decide where to open locations and thus create new jobs. An exciting addition to the 2020 Census is technology; most homes are expected to answer online or by phone, fewer census workers will be deployed in-field where they’ll be guided by iPhone apps, and addresses are verified by new mapping technology using aerial imagery (more to come on census technology and the challenges it poses in a future post.

Congressional apportionment is the process by which 435 seats in the House of Reps are divided between 50 states; apportionment is the foundational need for a census. The apportionment is based on the total residents of each area, regardless of age, citizenship, etc. of the state. Residence is defined in this context as the place a person lives or sleeps most of the time (this can obviously create issues for a college town whose students share time with their hometown). The Method of Equal Proportions is used to determine the number of seats each state is allocated. It strives to ensure that each congressional district represents roughly the same number of people (watch this illustrated video on the method; read about the range of representation ratios across districts in 2017 to interpret if this seems equal).  

The number of seats in the House of Reps can be changed by Congress, yet there have been 435 seats since 1911 (except when Alaska and Hawaii became states and they were each given 1 seat until the next reapportionment). In 2010, 10 states lost districts, equalling seats in the House, while 8 states gained representatives. Texas gained 4 seats due to its 20% population increase between 2000 to 2010 that was captured by the census. Not only did this increase Texas’ representation in the Legislature, but it also increased its power in determining the executive branch of government, as the number of Electors in the Electoral College equals the sum of Senators and Representatives.

Re-defining district lines

Once re-apportionment is calculated and allocated after each decennial census, states redraw legislative lines so that each district represents roughly an equal number of constituents. Districts determine representation; each residence in the US is in a specific district that has a seat in the House of Reps, State Legislature, City Council, School Board, etc. All votes in a district come together to have a singular voice every time an official is elected. The political party that is likely to win a district is inherently the product of the area that the district covers. District lines are a crucial element to defining who holds political power and what democracy looks like on the national and local stage.

Defining district lines aren’t as mathematically precise as the equation for congressional apportionment. In most states including Texas, elected officials in the legislature are given the power to decide what these districts should look like, and governors have vetoing power. Stay tuned for an upcoming post about gerrymandering and its impacts on Texas.

Allocation of federal funding

The federal government uses census data to determine fund allocation, which is “crucial to the well-being of families and communities.” In 2015, census data was used to allocate $675 billion of federal funds. 132 federal programs used the data to select and/or restrict recipients of funds, award or allocate funds, and monitor and assess program performance. The top census guided federal programs grant funds in healthcare, education, housing, and transportation infrastructure. It’s expected that the 2020 Census will be used to guide the distribution of over $880 billion of federal funding annually.

The impact of this federal funding is significant and the accuracy of the census is crucial for federal funding to be allocated properly. Travis County was one of the 25 Counties in the US with the largest funding loss from 2002-2012 due to an undercount in the 2000 Census; the county lost over $50 million in the 10-year period. Texas would have lost $1,161 per person on federal social program funding in 2015 alone if the state was undercounted by 1%. Even a 1% undercount in 2020 for Texas would result in a loss of at least $300 million each year for a period of 10 years.

A Complete Count

The Census is a mass undertaking performed every 10 years where every count matters. It impacts the economic and political landscape from the national level to local communities. With each additional resident counted, more funding is allocated at the state and local level. A few counts can impact whether a state gets the additional representative in the House of Reps or who holds power that will impact how lines will be redrawn after the next decennial census. In promoting the importance of a complete count, which means that everyone in the community is included on the census, Mayor Steve Adler stated the following: “It’s important for us all to make sure everyone in our community gets counted… Our community has been leaving money on the table and we can’t afford to do that. If Austin and Travis County is to get its fair share, it’s imperative that everyone gets counted. Everyone who lives here counts.

Future ATA blog installments will address the following topics and challenges as they relate to the 2020 Census:

What topics are you interested in? What would you like to be covered? Tweet @AustinTech with census topics you’d like to learn more about.