Dollars And Census The census is more than a headcount. It determines how federal dollars are spent and how districts are represented in Congress.
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Dollars And Census

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Dollars And Census

Dollars And Census

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The census - we've been hearing a lot about it lately. It's become quite a hot topic. We got news this week that the 2020 census will include a question about citizenship. The Justice Department has asked that the question be added so it has a better sense of how many people are eligible to vote. And people are really up in arms about it - about this question.


And it seems a little strange to me that people get so excited about the census because it is - you know, it's a count of how many people live in the U.S. Honestly, it does not seem like the stuff great drama is made of. But then there is my cubicle mate.


VANEK SMITH: Hansi is a correspondent for NPR. He's this very smart, very hardworking guy. He's very serious. He's definitely not a melodramatic person, but he has been covering the census lately, and he gets really worked up about it.

So, Hansi, you sit next to me in the office.

WANG: I do.

VANEK SMITH: And I have heard you talking about the census for a while, and you are very passionate about the census.

WANG: I am.

VANEK SMITH: Why are you so passionate about the census?

WANG: OK. So...

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

WANG: Where do I begin?


VANEK SMITH: This is THE INDICATOR. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: And I'm Cardiff Garcia. The census is a powerful force politically, when it comes to policy, and for economics. So today on the show - why asking people about their citizenship status could affect where billions of dollars end up going and not going.


VANEK SMITH: So here's how my cubicle mate, Hansi Lo Wang, describes the census.

WANG: The census is like the plumbing - the plumbing that makes our democracy work. We don't think about it, but when it doesn't work, it's a really big deal.

VANEK SMITH: The census is actually in the U.S. Constitution - Article I, Section 2.

GARCIA: And here is what that section says in, like, old-timey (ph) language. (Reading) Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers. The actual enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States and within every subsequent term of 10 years.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: Stacey, what did I just say?

VANEK SMITH: Here is what you said, basically - every 10 years, the country will count how many people live where, and that will determine a couple of things.

WANG: How many representatives in the House of Representatives represent your state? That depends on your population count. How do we draw legislative districts? That depends on the population count.

GARCIA: That's right. The census largely determines a state's voice in Washington, and it determines a community's power within a state or a city. In some cases, this impact can be really dramatic.

WANG: I just came back from Rhode Island. Rhode Island is on the verge of possibly losing a representative in the House of Representatives after 2020.

VANEK SMITH: And how many representative seats do they have in Rhode Island?

WANG: Rhode Island currently has two.

VANEK SMITH: They're going to lose half of their representatives potentially.

WANG: Yes.

GARCIA: And the other thing the census is used for - money. The federal government doles out an estimated $800 billion in funds to state and local governments every year. And, hey, that's our Planet Money Indicator - $800 billion. That goes to things like schools, housing, highways, law enforcement and health care.

VANEK SMITH: And where that money goes is often largely determined by census numbers. And because the census only comes out once a decade, that is 10 years' worth of federal funding - $800 billion a year for 10 years.

The census is powerful, and here is where the citizenship question comes in. The worry is adding a question about citizenship will make people less likely to fill out the census. Hansi has been talking to a lot of undocumented immigrants and documented immigrants about this.

WANG: The fear is that you add a citizenship question, and people will start asking, well, why are you asking this now? I'm not a citizen. Do I - should I be part of this?

GARCIA: Hansi says undocumented immigrants may be worried about being deported if they tell a government agency that they're not citizens, especially in the current political climate. And many immigrants who do have legal status live in mixed-status households - in other words, documented immigrants with undocumented immigrants - and they don't want to expose a family member.

VANEK SMITH: Hansi says even without a citizenship question, Americans have traditionally been wary of the census.

WANG: For decades, the Census Bureau has been experiencing a low response rate, and part of that is just a reluctance of giving up personal information to the federal government.

VANEK SMITH: So add a citizenship question, the response rate could be even lower than usual, especially in communities with large immigrant populations. And that means a few things. First, that these cities and states won't get the political voice their population would normally get.

Remember, Rhode Island and their two representatives? Rhode Island has a big immigrant population, both documented and undocumented. If immigrants in Rhode Island don't respond to the census, Rhode Island could be down to one House seat.

GARCIA: And then, of course, there's the money issue. Suddenly, you have a school district that is way underfunded for the number of kids that it's actually educating - kids of both immigrants and of U.S.-born citizens. All the kids are going to the schools without enough teachers, for example. Or they might be living in communities without sufficient health care or police or road repair.

In 2010, New York actually sued the federal government over the census. The borough of Queens in New York City has a big immigrant population, but the census recorded this population that seemed way too low considering how many houses had been built in Queens and what everybody knew about its population.

VANEK SMITH: And New York freaked out about this. They said, we demand a recount. These numbers aren't right, and if you use them, we won't get the services to support our people, and we will not have a proper voice in Washington. And New York did lose representation. They lost two seats in the House because of the census population count.

And it is not just federal money we're talking about. There's a lot of private money at stake. A lot of companies look at census data to determine where to open businesses and where to invest - grocery stores, real estate developers, banks.

GARCIA: Plus, communities with higher populations have more money in them. They attract more businesses and more investment. So if the populations are not counted, they will be underserved by the private sector as well.

VANEK SMITH: And Hansi says there is big news coming out on Friday.

WANG: By Friday, the Census Bureau is expected to release the actual wording of all the 2020 questions. So by that point, we may see exactly how they're going to word this citizenship question, which has implications on these legal battles.

VANEK SMITH: So there are, like, literally millions of lawyers across the country waiting for this question to be unveiled.

WANG: I don't know about millions, but I'm sure there are...

VANEK SMITH: Many, dozens.

WANG: Sure.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Definitely dozens.

WANG: I imagine. I mean, this will have implications on these lawsuits. One tweak of the word, one phrasing can, you know, discourage some people from responding or kind of move people one way or the other or direct people or misdirect people when they see a question. So it's all - it's really in the details here.


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