By Tony Quinn and Marva Diaz | Special for CalMatters
All the attention this summer and fall is on the presidential race, but there is another political event taking place that deserves the public’s attention, and that is the U.S. census.
Every 10 years we must make a census count of all the people in the United States and this is the year. But like everything else in the time of COVID-19, the census has been delayed and made more difficult.
The census serves two purposes: it decides our political representation, and, more importantly, it determines how federal spending is divided up among the states. While most people don’t really care how many congressional districts California has, they should care about how their tax dollars are spent.
More than $1.5 trillion in federal spending is transferred to the states through 317 federal programs. These include highway construction, health spending, education and a myriad of federal and state matching programs.
According to a new UCLA report, for every person missed in the census count in California, the state will lose $1,000 a year in federal funds. That would amount to $10,000 per person lost over the next decade. A PricewaterhouseCoopers analysis shows that California lost $1.5 billion in federal funds because of an undercount in the 2000 census.
Getting an accurate count of the number of people this year has been made far more difficult by the pandemic. Shelter in place orders meant census workers, called “census enumerators,” could not go door-to-door to achieve a more accurate count.
Census Day was April 1, 2020, meaning the federal government was directed to determine the number of people in the United States as of that day. So the Census Bureau sent a census form to every postal and internet address it had, and as of August about two-thirds of the households had returned their census forms.
The census process is supposed to end on Dec. 31, 2020. On that date the Census Bureau is supposed to report to the president exactly how many people there are in the United States. But because of the early delays, the bureau told Congress it could not meet the December deadline. “We have passed the point where we could even meet the current legislative requirement of December 31. We can’t do that anymore,” Tim Olson, head of field operations for this year’s national count, told Congress in May.
So the Census Bureau asked that its deadline be extended until March 2021, but when Congress failed to pass the necessary legislation, the bureau reverted to the December deadline. That means all the census field work must be complete by Sept. 30.
The problem is that the one-third of uncounted Americans includes people who are hard to find, and some who may not want to be counted in both rural areas and urban centers.
The undercounting means California will be short-changed in federal dollars for the next decade. Not only that, but counties within California will be fiercely competing against each other as those federal dollars to the state get divided. We’ll see the impact to our roads, our health care system, our education system and everywhere else where we rely upon federal dollars.
It’s a presidential election year and the headlines remind us of that every day. But let’s remember that when the election is over, we could be dealing with inaccurate census numbers that take a toll on our financial well-being for the next 10 years. It is the responsibility of every Californian to step up to the challenge and assure an accurate count.
Tony Quinn is the senior editor of California Target Book, a non-partisan toolbox for California political professionals, and Marva Diaz is editor. They wrote this wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.