Have you ever considered where funding for emergency response services come from? Or how hospital locations are determined? Data from the decennial census can play a part in both. Why does the nation need to make this count every ten years? What other information does the Census tell us? How does it affect individuals, communities, businesses, and government?


Case Study

As Hurricane Irma tore through the Sunshine State’s panhandle in 2017, it is likely that the last thing on anyone’s mind was the Census. However, when planning evacuation routes, emergency services in Cape Coral, Florida relied on Census data. Census Bureau data provided population maps to emergency response teams, enabling them to identify where to send supplies and where to set up distribution points, as well as where to send wheelchair-accessible vans and which shelters to direct people towards. Knowing where people live and how many people live there is critical for effective emergency response and allocation of many other types of federal funds.

A first responder explains why the Census is crucial for emergency response services:


Putting it in Context


In 1790, the Founders included in the Constitution a plan “to count every person living in the newly created United States of America, and to use that count to determine representation in the Congress.” This plan, called the Census, is the “once-a-decade population and housing count of all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Island Areas as required by the U.S. constitution.”

Why it Matters

Information gathered from the Census is used to allocate over $900 billion in spending, and billions more in private sector investment. This information also drives the redistribution of seats in the House of Representatives, the federal level policymakers closest to their constituents. The population count answers questions from who we are and where we live, to which communities need new schools or roads and what services should be offered based on regional demographics. All of these answers affect the nation at large, as well as each community across the country and its individual residents, businesses, and policymakers. For more on what Census data can show, see the Census Bureau’s America Counts.

How Does it Work?

Since 1790, a census of the U.S. population has been conducted every 10 years (and since 1930 has always been conducted on April 1). The next Census will be conducted on April 1, 2020.

Questions on the Census include general contact information and information on residency, ethnicity, and age. The Census Bureau is required by law to protect individuals’ information, all of which is combined to only be used for statistical purposes. For the 2020 Census, individuals can fill out the form online, by mail, or by phone.

Federal law mandates all households participate in the Census, and any household member over 18 who does not participate can be fined. According to The Hill, “Not completing census forms is a crime under Title 13 of the U.S. Code,” with the exception of not answering based on religious beliefs. Title 13 imposed a $100 fine for refusing to answer census questions and a $500 fine for answering questions falsely. In 1984, however, the Sentencing Reform Act increased the minimum fines to $5,000. The last census failure to be prosecuted was in 1970; census officials usually contact residents who fail to complete census questions to allow them to comply.


The Role of Government

The Census Bureau

According to the Constitution, Congress is responsible for conducting the Census – but this is one of many powers that Congress has delegated back to the executive branch. The Census Bureau, which became a permanent agency under the Department of Commerce in 1902, is now in charge of the census (Brennan Center).

The Census Bureau serves “as the nation’s leading provider of quality data about its people and economy” and is “the federal government’s largest statistical agency.” It is overseen by the Commerce Department’s Economics and Statistics Administration. The Census Bureau also conducts an economic census every 5 years; a census for local and state governments every 5 years; annual economic and demographic surveys; and the American Community Survey, which is conducted annually for social, demographic and economic characteristics. Those efforts are smaller in scope than the decennial census. The Bureau additionally makes population and demographic projections based on Census data.

Congressional Committees

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, specifically the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, have legislative and oversight jurisdiction over the Census and the Census Bureau. For example, the Census Bureau needs to submit to Congress the questions that will be on the Census for approval.


What Does it Affect?

We’ve talked about some Census data uses, but there are many more uses we never think about. Census information is used to shape other federal statistical surveys and to generate population projections to be used in economic indices and spending models. Additional public sector uses for census data include promoting economic development and shaping tax policy. In the private sector, businesses frequently use census data to make decisions on investments, marketing, and advertising (Census Bureau).

Of course, the two uses we think about the most are allocating congressional seats and federal funds.

Electoral Maps

Every decade, population changes measured by the Census are used to redraw the boundaries for House districts and state legislative districts, as well as for school districts and voting precincts (Reuters). This video explains how the Census is used to divide seats in the House of Representatives among the 50 states: 

Next year, the 2020 Census “will lead to a reapportionment of Congressional Districts. Since each state receives electoral votes equal to its number of congressional seats (+2 for its Senators), the electoral map will be changing for the 2024 presidential election” (270 to Win). Based on estimates from December 2019 by Election Data Services, 17 states will either lose or gain electoral votes. The largest estimated changes will be to Texas (gain 3 votes) and Florida (gain 2 votes). The other states affected will either lose 1 vote (Alabama, California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and West Virginia) or gain 1 vote (Arizona, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina, and Oregon). One or two votes may not seem significant for larger states like Florida (which could increase from 27 votes to 29), but it can make a dramatic difference for smaller states, like Rhode Island (which could decrease from 2 votes to 1) and Montana (which could increase from 1 vote to 2). For more, see The Policy Circle’s Electoral College Deep Dive.


For funding, population counts and characteristics are aggregated and organized by geography (urban/rural, state, county, census tract, block, etc.). For example, “the urban/rural classification is an important part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs designed to serve rural areas.”

Census Bureau data affect funds in one of three ways:

  • Selection of recipients: Census data define the characteristics of populations who become eligible to receive services from specific programs, or characteristics of public or private entities eligible to receive funds to provide those service.
  • Allocation of funds: Census data determine how funds are distributed to eligible recipients.
  • Assessment of programs: Census data ensure programs function according to plan, and explore potential alternative methods of distributing funds.

Population counts derived from the Census are also utilized in determining how much money states, counties, and cities receive from the federal government. In 2017, a Census Bureau report found Census data in 2015 helped allocate $675 billion in federal funding for 132 programs from Medicare and Medicaid to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Head Start.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development uses measures related to poverty, population, and housing to determine funding for the Community Development Block Grant program. Census data are also used to calculate funding that matches state spending on programs, such as for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Even our roads and highways are impacted – most states rely on population counts from the census to allocate gasoline sales tax revenue, which is a primary source of funding for local roads.


Current Challenges and Areas for Reform

The Census only happens once every ten years, so getting full participation is of the utmost importance. Participation is mandated by law, but misinformation spreading on social media, concerns about data privacy, and ensuring participation in hard-to-reach areas are proving to be challenges.

Combating Disinformation

In 2018, rumors on social media spread that census takers looking to confirm addresses were actually robbers scoping out neighborhoods. The Census Bureau implemented a Trust and Safety Team to combat this kind of false claim, and other misleading information about the Census. The new task force will partner with social media sites including Twitter and Facebook, which “have been grappling with repeated attempts by people to use their platforms to create false narratives to sway popular opinion,” particularly during the 2016 election. These companies have the ability to “remove or lower the ranking of content that is considered harmful to the count.” Additionally, the Census Bureau is working on a $500 million communications campaign to supply facts to counter any false claims and educate people on how the population count works and what it entails

Protecting Data

In 2018, the Census Bureau discovered anyone with the proper data tools could use 2010 Census statistics to identify one in six Americans. Researchers rearranged the billions of statistics from the 2010 Census, linked the partial identities to a commercial database with names, and successfully identified 52 million Americans.

The Census Bureau exists “to share as much useful data as possible” with businesses and government agencies so they can use the data for reasons such as research and projections. However, the Census depends on Americans trusting the government to keep the personal information they report safe. In addition to the federal laws that protect data collected by the Census from any other use, even in court, the Census Bureau has taken steps to prevent identification of specific households and individuals. For more information, see these explainers from the Census Bureau on federal law regarding the confidentiality of your census responses and the safety of your data.

Ensuring Participation

California is one state concerned about undercounting, and is budgeting $187 million on a campaign to get its 40 million residents to participate in the 2020 Census. This includes custom marketing campaigns and partnerships with nonprofit organizations that have been “showered with grants to boost response in hard-to-count areas.”  In rural California, for example, where lack of internet service may impede responses, efforts are focused on community events and using billboards. About half the states are allotting close to $300 million for similar census campaigns.

The other half of the states are more like Texas (with 29 million residents, second in population behind California), where “a volunteer corps of civic groups, philanthropies, local governments, and others” are trying to reach those who may be undercounted. The Texas Legislature failed to pass a bill that would have committed $50 million to census response efforts. For many of these states, efforts provided by the private sector are filling gaps in tight state budgets.


The Census in the Courts

The Citizenship Question

The Commerce Department under President Trump wanted to ask a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, which created quite a bit of turbulence. Three courts blocked the admittance of such a question to the Census, which then went to the Supreme Court Justices. On June 27, 2019, the Supreme Court agreed with the lower courts in a 5-4 decision.

Simply put, the question asks whether or not the respondent is a citizen of the United States. It does not ask about legal status. The Census used to ask a citizenship question, but switched things up in 1950 when the Census Bureau began distributing two different census forms, a long one and a short one. Only the long one contained the citizenship question, but only one in six households received the long form, which has not been used since 2000. The question now appears instead on the American Community Survey, an annual survey the Census Bureau sends to a random sample of 3.5 million households for yearly information on economic, social, demographic, and housing data such as income, poverty, and health insurance. This move would have taken the same question from the American Community Survey and put it on the Census instead.

When considering this approach, the Department of Commerce noted Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Indonesia, Ireland, Mexico, and the UK all ask a citizenship question on their census questionnaires. Mixed feelings about the citizenship question arose in test settings in 2017, when Census Bureau interviewers reported confidentiality and data-sharing concerns when they asked questions about citizenship. Interviewer said some survey respondents (particularly immigrants or those living with immigrants) provided incomplete or incorrect information and were visibly nervous (AAJC).

Critics have argued the question would “deter immigrants from taking part in the population count for fear of deportation…to engineer a deliberate undercount of places with high immigrant and Latino concentrations” (Reuters). If this reasoning is correct, including the question could result in communities with large immigrant populations receiving less political representation and government funding (AP News). At the same time, not responding to the Census violates federal law. Thus, these potential injuries would technically occur only if respondents violate the law.

For more on the citizenship question, listen to this Constitution Center debate between Tom Wolf and John Eastman.


 Gerrymandering is “the practice of drawing electoral district lines to favor one political party, individual, or constituency over another.” Two gerrymandering cases, one from North Carolina and one from Maryland, appeared before the Supreme Court this year.

While the Census determines how many federal representatives a state receives, it’s up to the state legislature to map out what area each representative’s district covers. The ability of state legislators to draw favorable maps is one policy area many point to in an effort to explain the deep political divide in our nation today. Read more about gerrymandering here.


The Census is responsible for guiding hundreds of billions of dollars in public and private spending and investment as well as political representation. As participants, Americans need to know the purposes and importance of the Census, and officials must ensure their responses are counted and remain private. This nation-wide endeavor requires the combined efforts of individuals, communities, businesses, and government since the results affect each and every one of these stakeholders.

Ways to Get Involved/What You Can Do

Dive Deeper:

Hear From Others:

Here are some tips on writing to your elected officials or scheduling a meeting with them.

See What’s Going On Locally

Find Out Who The Influencers in Your State Are