The decennial census plays an essential role in American democracy. Most fundamentally, it ensures that communities get the right number of representatives in government. Less well known is the role it plays in determining how hundreds of billions of federal dollars are allocated to states and localities for a wide range of public services, including health care and child nutrition programs.
Although census information is essential, the Census Bureau is currently budget constrained, behind schedule, and scaling back the number of full-scale test runs it was planning. This is of particular concern since several key changes to the census process are in the works: the majority of census information will be collected online, resources for door-to-door outreach may be reduced, and a question about immigration status will be added to the official questionnaire. These and other factors increase the potential for an undercount, especially among vulnerable populations. Just today, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has filed a lawsuit over this issue.
Why are the stakes so high? A significant undercount could cost California political representation in Congress at a time of record polarization and a deep partisan divide over the direction of the state and the nation. Critical decisions that affect California’s future will be determined to a large extent by federal rules on such issues as climate change, health care, and immigration.
An undercount also means that an important amount of federal funding could dry up. Federal, state, and local government programs that target disadvantaged neighborhoods or populations rely critically on census surveys to identify those in need and distribute funds accordingly. For example, two programs crucial to the health and well-being of children in California—the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Women, Infants, and Children program—rely on population estimates that use the decennial census count as a baseline for population estimates with which they aim to accurately allocate funds across states.
The impact on California could be huge—and 2020 is fast approaching. At a time when objective facts and information are in short supply, PPIC will be working to raise awareness about the importance of the 2020 Census for California and motivate elected leaders and organizations across the state to work together to ensure an accurate count. Stay tuned for more facts and analysis of the 2020 Census from PPIC.