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6 ways the U.S. Census matters for families

SALT LAKE CITY — America is almost exactly one year away from its decennial count, the U.S. Census. In coming months, the federal government will fine-tune its survey and embark on a hiring binge to make sure it has enough workers in place to process data submitted online, take information over the phone and send surveyors into communities to complete the job where forms are not returned.

The U.S. Census is conducted every 10 years on years ending in zero and asks where people live on April 1. Answering is required by law, and the call for the count is contained in the U.S. Constitution.

The goal is to account for all those living in the United States, said Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham during a press briefing Monday. "We go to extraordinary lengths to ensure we count everyone once, only once and in the right place," he noted in a statement.

The 2020 Census will mark 230 years since the first every-decade count, which took place in 1790. Here's a page from that first count.
The 2020 Census will mark 230 years since the first every-decade count, which took place in 1790. Here's a page from that first count.
U.S. Census Bureau

The upcoming 2020 version has been controversial because the White House wants to add a question asking if people are U.S. citizens, resulting in political and legal battles. At its heart, though, the census is not about political wrangling, but about the way people live in America.

In addition to the decennial censuses, the Census Bureau also conducts the American Community Surveys that take place between them asking more detailed and personal questions about American life. (A census counts — or tries to — every individual, while a survey is a sampling.)

Here are six ways all of this data matters to families:

1. Federal representation in Congress can impact how resources are allocated among states.

How many seats a state gets in the House of Representatives depends on its population size, and that's based on the U.S. Census count. That arguably means more representatives and more clout. How much representation a state had was also important during the Base Realignment and Closure process as states fought to keep military bases open to preserve jobs and the economic boost they provide both for families and for a state's economy.

To get a sense of the impact losing the base would have on Utah, consider that the Hill Air Force Base 2018 economic impact statement released three months ago says Hill added $3.6 billion to Utah's economy. As for direct family impact, there were 25,709 personnel attached to Hill, including civilians, members of the military and their dependents.

Congressional representatives can promote family-friendly policies and programs. If a state has a particular interest, like caring for a high percentage of children or elderly citizens, having more votes can make a difference in serving that group's needs.

2. An undercount takes money from programs.

The bureau said as many as 5 percent of children under age 5 were missed in the official count in 2010. An undercount may not only decrease money that flows into a state through various federal grants, but also inevitably reduces some services. A good example is Head Start, which provides early childhood education to low-income families. Adequate funding is needed to meet the need, and the impact is multiplied if an undercount fails to provide enough money and also translates to fewer slots in the program.

Child Trends reports that annually, "$20 billion in federal supports for young children — through Head Start; the Maternal and Child Health Services Block Grant; the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children; and the Child Care and Development Block Grant programs — are distributed to communities based on census counts of children under age 5."

Wrote Anna Maria Barry-Jester for FiveThirtyEight in 2018, "Problems with the big decennial survey can linger for a decade. That dynamic isn’t isolated to Head Start; the census is the bureaucratic bones supporting much of the infrastructure behind our social safety net, political representation and research programs."

3. Data is needed to right-size schools.

Census data on how many preschoolers there are can help planners get ready for when those youngsters get to school. Counting how many kids are in school can be used to help colleges plan for what's coming, too, while also tracking trends. Data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, for example, showed that just under 3 in 10 people in college attend two-year schools, and that one-fourth of the entire American population over age 3 is enrolled in school at some level, from kindergarten to college.

4. Planners get a heads-up on infrastructure they'll need in the future.

The U.S. Census provides an early indication of population growth or shrinkage in particular areas. The South and the West, for instance, grew the most between the 2000 and 2010 census counts, while the overall "resident population" — those living in the 50 states and the District of Columbia — increased almost 10 percent to nearly 309 million people on April 1, 2010.

The 2010 big count told us California had the most people and Wyoming the fewest, both facts many people might have guessed. But without the census, who'd have known that Texas gained the most people, while Nevada had the highest percentage increase?

That's the kind of data that can impact whether or not a big-box grocery chain builds in a community, and that might influence how a school board plans its future placement of grade schools or whether planners propose building a new airport.

5. The census can ensure vulnerable populations aren't missed.

Correctly counting everyone is important because they may have very different needs that have to be taken into consideration by officials. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, those most likely to be overlooked in a census decennial count are also often the most vulnerable, "including communities of color, residents of rural areas, immigrants and young children."

The foundation notes that "underrepresentation of those groups, known as the 'hard to count,' leaves them at great disadvantage when it comes to resources and policy choices in vital areas from education to transportation to access to technology."

6. Knowing how many people live together and what their households look like impacts family policy.

The decennial census provides a look at how many people live together, including the age span between them. For example, the census and its related interim samplings are how we know that 2.6 million grandparents are raising their grandchildren, as The Atlantic reported. That kind of knowledge about families and their structures can help lawmakers make good policies that affect them when it comes to things lile financial support, housing and legal issues.