Underfunding the 2020 Census would have huge costs for Alabama

Published 1:37 am Saturday, December 16, 2017

By Jim Carnes

Alabama and our state’s almost 4.8 million residents have a large stake in a fair and accurate Census. Our share of federal funding for vital services depends on it, as well as our allotment of delegates to Congress. But as the 2020 Census fast approaches, alarms about inadequate preparations are ringing across the nation.

The Constitution requires a new count of the country’s population every 10 years. It’s a massive undertaking, involving more than a decade of planning, elaborate tests of new counting methods, extensive outreach to a more diverse and mobile population, and hiring a temporary workforce of more than 500,000 to contact people who don’t self-respond.

So far, federal policymakers have severely underfunded preparations for the 2020 Census by hundreds of millions of dollars. Continuing down this path will lead to an inadequate Census, and that could result in Alabama’s population being understated by tens or even hundreds of thousands.

The Census is more than a head count. For one thing, it ensures the fair allocation of political power. Population data are used to reapportion congressional seats and redraw lines for the Legislature, school boards and other districts across the state. Gov. Kay Ivey recently acknowledged the risk of an underfunded Census, telling the Association of County Commissioners of Alabama that the state “is in jeopardy of losing a congressperson.”

Census data also guide more than $7.6 billion annually in federal funds to Alabama. This money supports vital services like Medicaid and Medicare, Head Start, school lunch programs, housing assistance, highways and transportation. Again, Ivey has warned that while a poor Census count could cost Alabama a congressional seat, “more devastating … could be the fact that we will lose federal funding.” Those losses would hurt our state’s economy and quality of life by reducing investments in services that help Alabama families get ahead.

As 2020 nears, the Census Bureau’s annual funding is still stalled at last year’s level, and the White House and Congress have yet to move on an increase. That inaction imperils the traditional “ramp-up” of additional funding needed to accelerate planning for the next decennial census.

Historically, the Census Bureau has put serious resources into neighborhoods with large communities of color. But insufficient funding threatens this trend. Nearly one in 10 Alabamians, or about 436,000 people, live in what the Census Bureau calls “hard-to-count” tracts, where they’re less likely to be counted. In Alabama, 22.5 percent of African Americans, 19 percent of Latinos, 15.5 percent of Asians and 8.2 percent of whites live in “hard-to-count” places, according to the Census Bureau.

Alabamians cannot afford to wait until 2020 to protect our stake in the Census. The White House recently asked Congress to increase funding for the Census Bureau in 2018 by $187 million to make up for past underinvestment. A more appropriate increase would be closer to $400 million to get started in outreach, partnership and testing of new operations to ensure a complete, fair and accurate count.

The time to contact U.S. senators and representatives is now, before they consider final 2018 funding later this month. Alabama has too much at stake over the next decade to settle for anything less.


Jim Carnes is policy director of Arise Citizens’ Policy Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of congregations, organizations and individuals promoting public policies to improve the lives of low-income Alabamians.