What is the Decennial Census?

Since 1790, the United States has undertaken an effort to make an exact count of every resident living within the country’s borders every 10 years. Mandated by the United States Constitution, the Census was originally created to determine the population of each state so that the correct number of delegates in the House of Representatives could be apportioned to each state.

In the modern era, the Census has become much more than just a population count. In 1790, the Census had questions regarding the number of residents in the household and their gender. However, more modern surveys have expanded the topics to include race, Hispanic origin, occupancy status, and much more. This data is compiled and shared with the public to be used by anybody that is interested in it. This data is used by various organizations across the country, including CDRPC, to help plan for and improve communities.

Why is the Decennial Census Important for the Capital Region?

While the Census has various important uses, there are four that are especially important to the Capital Region:

1. Government Resource Allocation

The Census helps the Federal Government and other decision makers determine how to disperse over a trillion dollars of funding each year. Using Demographic Data from the Census as well as other Census Bureau surveys, decision makers can analyze states, counties, cities, towns, villages, and even blocks to best determine where funding is needed. This aid goes to school, firehouses, hospitals, and many other vital institutions that otherwise would not be able to operate. It is also used to plan for and fund larger nationwide programs such as public health initiatives and infrastructure programs.

Despite the importance of the Census, there is a disconnect amongst the public in understanding how important it truly is. In a 2018 survey conducted by the Census Bureau, only 45% of respondents knew that the Census was used to help decision-makers determine how to disperse public funding. This highlights a major barrier to a complete Census count, as people who may not fully understand its importance and what it’s used for will be less likely to fill out the Census. 40% of respondents felt it did not matter if they were counted in the 2020 Census and men between 18 and 34 years of age are the least likely to respond to the Census.

2. Reapportionment

Changes in population distribution can influence the allocation of congressional districts within states, indicating which regions are experiencing growth or decline. With a total of 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, these seats must be apportioned among the 50 states based on their respective populations; each state is automatically allotted one seat. Over the decade spanning from 2010 to 2020, states in the Northeast and Midwest, including California, saw a decrease in congressional seats, while states in the West and South gained representation. During this period, Texas gained two congressional seats, and Florida, North Carolina, Colorado, Montana, and Oregon each gained one. Conversely, states such as California, New York, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania experienced a loss of one congressional seats.

3. Redistricting

Each state is assigned Congressional Seats in the U.S. House of Representatives based on their population, and it is then up to the states to redistrict their congressional representation throughout the state. The United States Constitution does not require any specific population figures to make up a state’s Congressional District but does ascertain that the districts should be relatively equal and is now generally accepted to be within a 10% deviation from each other. For example, in 2020, New York State had a population count of over 20 million and was designated 27 Congressional seats in the House of Representatives, translating to 26 Congressional Districts throughout the state. Dividing 20 million by 26 districts, each congressional district had a target population of approximately 769,230 people.

4. Demographic Data

The Census provides us with data on the National, State, and Local levels that help define who we are as a nation and the makeup of the people that live in this country. Data on race, age, population, sex, housing, and more are gathered by the Census which is used by governments, non-profits, and other agencies to get a better understanding of their communities and how to best serve an ever-changing country. This data is free to use by anyone who is interested and is one of the most vital tools used by public and private sector workers on the Federal, State, and Local level.

Amongst other reasons, these four factors emphasize the importance of the Census and the necessity of having an accurate count. At the highest level, having the proper number of representatives in the House of Representatives is important to have every resident of the United States to be properly represented. At the local level, receiving proper funding in your community is essential to have a properly functioning government and local institutions. Raising awareness of the Census and its function will be very important moving forward to ensure that everyone participates.