Domestic Policy Watch — March 2010

The Count Counts

By W. Paul Farmer, FAICP
Chief Executive Officer
American Planning Association

The counting has begun, and Census 2010 is well under way. APA and many planners, along with a host of civic organizations and partner groups, are working hard to promote participation in the census. This effort is vitally important. Most of us recognize the need for accurate census data to understand how communities are growing and changing. This information, much of it collected since the days of George Washington, provides a critical framework for good governance, good planning, and a host of state and local policy decisions. However, the ultimate impact of the census on communities and public services goes deeper than most people realize.

A new report by the Brookings Institution, Counting for Dollars: The Role of the Decennial Census in the Geographic Distribution of Federal Funds, demonstrates how the census guides investment for an array of important programs. A review of federal spending in FY 2008 found that 215 federal domestic programs relied on census data to determine the allocation of approximately $450 billion in federal investment. That amounts to roughly one-third of all federal assistance.

Census-Directed Programs by Federal Department (FY 2008)

% of Total
Health and Human Services
$295.6 billion
$48.3 billion
Housing & Urban Development
$37.5 billion
$27.5 billion
$25.9 billion
$7 billion
Homeland Security
$2.5 billion
$440 million
$363 million
$293 million
$237 million
$233 million
Small Business Administration
$86 million
$9 million
$446.6 billion

Totals include agencies not listed. Data compiled in Counting for Dollars: The Role of the Decennial Census in the Geographic Distribution of Federal Funds.

With the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in early 2009, federal domestic spending increased and many of those stimulus dollars were guided directly by formulas tied to the census. Given the growth in federal investment, it seems certain that the results of the 2010 Census will guide the annual distribution of more than half a trillion dollars in domestic spending.

Beyond just the large amount of total funding at stake, there are particularly important implications for social equity and for some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Most of the major federal programs providing assistance to seniors, children, and the poor are driven by census information. Among the 10 largest programs relying on census-guided data are Medicaid, Section 8 housing vouchers, special education grants to states, Title I education grants, State Children's Health Insurance Program, WIC nutritional payments, and Head Start.

10 Largest Census-Directed Federal Assistance Programs

Program Department FY08 Expenditure
Medical Assistance Program Health and Human Services $261.1 billion
Federal-Aid Highway Transportation $36.8 billion
Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers HUD $15.3 billion
Special Education Grants Education $10.8 billion
Title I Local Education Grants Education $7.5 billion
Low to Moderate Income Housing Loans Agriculture $7.2 billion
State Children's Health Insurance Program Health and Human Services $7.1 billion
Supplemental Nutrition for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Agriculture $6.1 billion
Section 8 Project-Based Assistance HUD $6 billion
Head Start Health and Human Services $5.7 billion

Based on FY 2008 data compiled in Counting for Dollars: The Role of the Decennial Census in the Geographic Distribution of Federal Funds. HUD's Community Development Block Grants, a program heavily used by planning departments, are also directed by census data. FY 2008 CDBG funding was approximately $3.9 billion.

Undercounts can have a big impact on budgets and, in turn, the level of services provided to residents. The Counting for Dollars report found that each additional person included in Census 2000 resulted in an annual additional Medicaid reimbursement to the state that ranged from several hundred to several thousand dollars. Some have mistakenly used these statistics to imply that a focus on addressing undercounts is important only for urban areas. However, an accurate count is equally important for rural areas. The report underscores this by demonstrating that state per capita, census-guided funding is positively related not only to income inequality but also to the percentage of the population that is rural. As it turns out, it is often just as challenging to count rural residents as inner-city residents, and the funding impact, on a per capita basis, can be even larger in rural areas.

Census data are also critically important for many of the programs on which planners depend. From community development block grants to transportation infrastructure, the census drives federal investment. Planning-related programs — transportation, housing, and community development — make up the second-largest category of federal expenditures directed by census data. That's second only to health care. In FY 2008, approximately 10 percent of the budgets at both HUD and DOT— totaling more than $85 billion — were directly guided by census data.

Government is not the only user of census data. Businesses use this information for everything from identifying markets to investing in facilities. Nonprofit organizations, civic groups, and local service providers use census information to understand key trends. This knowledge about communities leads to better services, more efficient programs, and better quality of life. Many of us worry about a coarsening of civil debate. Tools like the census offer us the opportunity to do one of things planners do best: help engaged citizens and elected officials deal with problems and chart a path forward based on data and a solid, analytical understanding of the community.

Planners can play a key role in encouraging participation in the census. This isn't just because of the dollars at stake. We have to combat inaccuracies and misperceptions about the census spread by irresponsible comments from some elected officials. When a member of Congress grabs media attention by publicly refusing to complete her census form, she sends a powerful message that threatens the quality of the census count and the equitable distribution of resources.

Of course, the importance of the census goes deeper than just dollars and cents. It is fundamental to representative democracy. The U.S. Constitution mandates a census in order to fairly and accurately apportion seats in the House of Representatives and, by extension, the Electoral College. States and localities also rely on the census for determining legislative boundaries and districts, as well as the racial and ethic balance required by the Voting Rights Act.

Naturally, our current focus is on Census 2010, but it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the importance of the Census Bureau to planning goes beyond the decennial count. Other census products like the American Community Survey (ACS) and Local Employment Dynamics (LED) data are essential.

ACS was created as a replacement for the "long form." Its goal has been to provide a more detailed, accurate, and regular view of key community indicators. These data go well beyond overall population statistics and are essential to many local planning departments. Similarly, LED data, provided by the Census Bureau in cooperation with other federal data agencies such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics, allow planners to understand local and regional labor markets and the spatial relationships between jobs and housing.

In its FY 2011 budget request, the Census Bureau is asking Congress to increase investment in ACS. It wants an additional $44.2 million to expand the ACS sample size and thereby increase the reliability of ACS data, particularly for smaller areas and regions. According to the Census Bureau, the modest expansion would yield a 10 percent improvement in overall data reliability. The percentage would be much higher for small communities. More accurate and reliable data from ACS could lead to much better planning and investment decisions in rural areas and smaller metropolitan regions.

Census is also asking for modest increases to improve the Geographic Support System for the census and create a new supplemental poverty measure. The investment in the Geographic Support System not only benefits the Census Bureau directly but also will help providers of sophisticated geo-spatial data and products increasingly used by planners. This system is the underpinning for surveys and statistics that private and public organizations use to track economic, social, and demographic changes.

The work on a supplemental poverty measure comes in response to well-publicized criticism of current measures by the Government Accountability Office and a variety of policy makers. The Census Bureau's work is not intended to replace the official poverty measure but rather would greatly expand our understanding of poverty issues by using new data to create an alternate poverty threshold and make a broader array of resources available to American families.

APA endorsed the modest proposed increases for the Census Bureau's budget. In fact, APA has long been a committed supporter of the Census Bureau. APA is a member of the Census Partnership and works collaboratively with a variety of national organizations on federal data issues. This advocacy work is important. Census funding has regularly attracted attacks on Capitol Hill. Virtually every year there is an amendment or other effort to cut the census and shift funding to other causes ranging from bulletproof vests for police departments to NASA. The constituency behind the census isn't always as visible or as vocal as other groups competing for scarce resources. It's hard to "cut a ribbon" on data, and I'm not sure that I have ever met a "census ideologue," so the census is not always atop the priority list for elected officials. This makes our advocacy work all the more important. 

Planners are influential voices and key communicators in communities. We need to connect the dots for the public and policy makers alike about the importance of an accurate census and the many valuable uses of census data in local decision making and planning. The census is too critical to our democracy, public policy, and the economy to remain silent.