Worried About Undercount, States and Cities Spend Big to Promote 2020 Census

October 2, 2018

By Nick Brown

By law, the United States government is responsible for conducting a census every 10 years to count all of the country’s residents. But in the lead-up to the 2020 census, state and local leaders have made it clear they will not rely on the federal government to ensure an accurate count.

State governments, foundations and local governments are committing hundreds of millions of dollars to convince people to fill out their census forms, in what is likely to be the most expensive grassroots census campaign ever.

The stakes are high: Population data collected in the census not only serves to allocate congressional seats; it also determines how the federal government divides an estimated $800 billion each year for such things as public housing, highway construction, Head Start, Medicaid and Medicare. An undercount could cost states billions of dollars in federal revenue.

Some of the groups most likely to receive federal aid are also among those most often missed by the census. The Census Bureau’s own analysis found that it undercounted young children by 4.6 percent in the 2010 census and missed 1.1 percent of renters (a category sometimes used as a proxy for low-income residents). Homeowners were over-enumerated by more than half-a-percent.

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