Oct 12, 2019 - Politics & Policy

States spend big money for 2020 Census

Money sticking out of census box

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

States and cities have set aside bigger budgets than ever to prepare for the once-a-decade population count, with Washington's harsh immigration stance as a backdrop.

Why it matters: While the official Census count doesn't get under way until April, officials worry that immigrants won't complete the necessary forms for fear of retaliation.

  • "I've seen nothing like this as a threat to the Census," Andrew Beveridge, who's advising New York state on its Census efforts, tells Axios.

A so-called "undercount" of a state's population puts critical things at risk, including congressional seats and the allocation of federal funding for government assistance programs — which are both determined by the Census.

  • The U.S. Census Bureau itself doesn't have enough money to do the massive job justice, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
  • "Underfunding and funding delays during key planning and preparation years forced the Census Bureau to cancel key tests and have left it struggling to catch up in the pivotal years before 2020,” according to the center.

So cities and states with big immigrant populations — like California and New York City —  are supplementing the Census Bureau's efforts like never before, allocating money to outreach groups that can go to communities spooked by the Trump administration's efforts to identify non-citizens.

  • It's an effort to coax everyone to fill out a census form, whether they're in the country legally or not. (And, for the first time, people will be able to do this online.)
  • State, local and neighborhood groups "have the best chance of convincing people who are wary about participating in the census that it is safe," Terri Ann Lowenthal, who has advised organizations and government associations on Census-related matters, tells Axios.

By the numbers: California is allocating $187 million — nearly 95 times what it did a decade ago, according to The Mercury News — far outspending every other state.

  • New York City has budgeted $40 million to Census outreach — the most ever — and plans to parcel it out to agencies and community-based organizations that will raise awareness about the Census.
  • New York state, meantime, will dedicate $20 million to Census efforts.
  • Utah is setting aside funds for the first time ever — with a big portion of the $1 million being spent to count "a relatively large population of children under 5," PBS NewsHour reports.
  • Chicago plans to spend $2.3 million — the largest amount of funding the city has ever committed to the census, per the AP.

The backstory: After a fight that escalated to the Supreme Court, the Census won't include the controversial citizenship question proposed by the Trump administration.

  • Experts warned the question, which asked whether household members were U.S. citizens, could lead to a less accurate headcount and deprive cities with large numbers of minorities of federal funding, as Axios' Sam Baker reported.
  • The Census Bureau, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, has already hired thousands of temporary workers, though some fear the tight labor market could snarl its staffing plans.

States have typically created advisory councils in preparation for the Census, called "Complete Count Commissions." Those groups are busier and getting more attention now than in previous years.

  • "We've never had a context like this," Beveridge says. "That means the efforts of the Complete Count Commissions are very important this year in areas like Florida, Texas, California and New York which have high number of immigrant households."
  • Yes, but: Some of those states, including Florida and Texas, have taken no action at all yet. Efforts to bulk up Census outreach have failed to pass in those state's legislatures.

The bottom line: The 2020 Census is "the single largest civilian governmental undertaking in the United States," according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan research group.

  • The states at greatest risk of an undercount, according to the Urban Institute: Florida, California, Georgia, New York, Nevada, Texas, and New Mexico.

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