Census Brings Money Home

Last Monday, I came home to a letter from the U.S. Census Bureau urging me to fill out the 2010 Census form. The letter went on to tell me why: “Results from the 2010 Census will be used to help each community get its fair share of government funds for highways, schools, health facilities, and many other programs you and your neighbors need. Without a complete an accurate census, your community may not receive its fair share.”

My new report from Brookings, Counting for Dollars: The Role of the Decennial Census in the Distribution of Federal Funds offers important reasons why it’s worth a few minutes of your time to answer the 10 questions. I look at the extent to which the federal government relies on decennial census-related data to determine where domestic assistance funds are distributed across the nation. The motivation behind my study was to “make it real” for individual states and communities by providing dollar amounts, by program, that could be used by local Complete Count Committees to stimulate greater census participation.

The study’s results are interesting in a number of ways.

The numbers gathered through the decennial census determine the distribution of enormous sums — $447 billion in FY2008, $1,469 per person, and 15 percent of the total federal budget.

Over 80 percent of that $447 billion goes to state governments — mainly through large formula grant programs that aid low-income households and support highway construction. One fifth of state government budgets, it turns out, come from federal grants, so states have a big stake in an accurate census. For each extra person counted, aid increases from between a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on the state.

Census-guided funding per capita going to states varies enormously, from $4,656 in the District of Columbia to $742 in Nevada. Differences in Medicaid programs explain much of this variation. Medicaid reimbursements are huge — $261 billion or 58 percent of total census-guided funding. States with more generous coverage tend to get more census-guided funding per person, as do those with a higher proportion of lower income people.

Rural states tend to come out a little better. Highway building over large spaces with few people costs a high amount per capita. And for some programs, less populated states get a base amount that’s higher per person than for more populous states.

The outsized influence of census statistics on federal funding indicates the enormous return on taxpayer investment in federal statistics. One way to think about this is that the $14 billion life cycle cost of the 2010 Census will enable the fair allocation of nearly $5 trillion in funds over the coming decade (not adjusting for inflation or other changes).

The upshot: The 2010 Census is important for many reasons, including apportionment and redistricting, figuring out where businesses, schools, and roads go, and, as we see here, who gets hundreds of billions of dollars in federal aid. If you want, check out what monies will be coming to your community because of your participation.