Numbers Game: What a census undercount means to a community

FILE - In this Wednesday, April 1, 2020 file photo,People walk past posters encouraging participation in the 2020 Census in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. A top lawmaker says the Trump administration is seeking to delay deadlines for the 2020 census because of the coronavirus outbreak. U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney said Monday, April 13, 2020 that administration officials also were asking that the timetable for releasing apportionment and redistricting data used to draw congressional and legislative districts be pushed back.(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

HARLINGEN — A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money, way up into the trillions.

In Fiscal Year 2017, $1.5 trillion went to states in federal funding in the biggest 316 programs, the vast majority of it earmarked for Medicare ($710 billion) and Medicaid ($368 billion).

Of those funds, $102 billion came to Texas, with $50 billion designated for Medicare and $21 billion for Medicaid.

Dropping back a year to Fiscal Year 2016, we can go deeper into the funding categories, showing that after Medicare and Medicaid, the next-highest funding streams to Texas were the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program at $5.3 billion, Federal Direct Student Loans at $5.2 billion, followed by Medicare Supplemental Medical Insurance (Plan B) at $4.6 billion and highway planning and construction, $3.3 billion.

Most of these funds are distributed to the state and then doled out to local governments.

And much of that is done on the basis of population as determined by the census data collected every 10 years, or by annual extrapolations based on that data during interim years.

‘The pie is the pie’

Andrew Reamer is a research professor at George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy and these are the sort of numbers he crunches.

“The upshot is, that in general, I can say with a lot of fervor, that if your community does not count accurately and misses people, it will lose money, it will either go to another state or other places in Texas,” Reamer said.

“Your loss will be somebody else’s gain,” he added. “And the nature of that loss will vary from program to program depending on the nature of the program, depending on whether the money went to Austin or directly to Harlingen and Brownsville, and it depends on who is missed. Everyone counts, but with some programs, it depends on who you are.”

Reamer says a good way to look at federal funding allocated on the basis of census numbers is that it’s a massive pie, and a community or region’s slice is dependent on who gets counted and who doesn’t.

If a community loses out and receives less funding because of a census undercount, the money doesn’t stay with the federal government, it just migrates elsewhere.

“The pie is the pie, so if Texas gets undercounted, that money does not go back to Washington, it goes to California,” he said. “I would remind people in Texas that for every buck you lose because you’re undercounting yourself, California gets it. If Texas wants to fund blue states, it’s a great way to do it.”

Bucket list

Valley officials have been issuing warnings for two years about Census 2020, using a rule of thumb which says each person not counted costs local governments $1,500 a year, or $15,000 over the 10 years until the next census count.

Multiplied by tens of thousands of potentially uncounted Valley residents, and suddenly the number jumps into the tens if not hundreds of millions in unclaimed federal dollars.

But Reamer says it isn’t so linear when attempting to determine just how much a community loses due to census undercounts.

Census-derived federal spending can be put, roughly speaking, into three categories.

“You can think of these big, massive programs in three buckets,’ he said. “If you don’t fill out your form, Texas will get less money for Medicaid. Doesn’t matter that Medicaid serves poor people, the funding is based on the total population. …”

“For those kinds of programs it is possible to calculate the loss to a community if someone’s not counted,” he added. “That’s bucket one — everybody counts.”

The second bucket is that only some people count. Reamer said many programs’ funding is based on categories of people, like the number of children living below the poverty level when it comes to school funding.

“Some programs are based on the counts of seniors, there are some programs that are based on the count of babies, there are some programs that are based on the count of unemployed people,” he said. “For some programs — it’s a lot of programs — only certain people count.

“When people ask me, ‘Well, if we undercount ourselves, what’s it going to cost across the board?’” he said. “I can’t tell you, because it depends on who is not counted.”

The third category is how census data are used to create a category of classification. Think urban-versus-rural designations of communities either over or under the 50,000-population threshold. Both designations have specifically-tailored programs that can mean more or less money is allocated to them.

“Here’s another example, SNAP food stamps,” Reamer said. “Food stamps are not allocated nationwide on the basis of census data, it’s just whatever your eligibility is. …”

“The nationwide rule, I believe, is you can get food stamps for 26 weeks, but if you’re in a high unemployment area, your community can ask for a waiver from the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) where people can get food stamps beyond 26 weeks and I think the cutoff is 6 percent … so if a community has over 6 percent unemployed, they can get the waiver and get more food stamps,” he added. “The unemployment rate is based on data derived from the census.”

Since the poor and those who are unemployed are less likely to complete the census, Reamer said such small margins of census non-reporting could lead to less money in certain programs in some communities.

Private sector, too

Governments use census data to decide not just where to spend money, but also in deciding where to put community health centers, where to locate a highway or where to build a school.

Yet private businesses are equally dependent on census data. Companies use these deep dives into a community and its workforce in determining where to locate a new auto plant or factory, a new grocery store, and even what to stock in that store.

“In the private sector, and we’ll see what America is like in a year if there’s ever a vaccine, but every Target, every Costco, every Starbucks makes its location decisions about not just where to put stores but what to carry,” Reamer said.

“ One Target in Austin is going to be different than the Target in Brownsville,” he added. “And they use the census data to figure out who their customer base is, not only how big it is, but what they should carry based on different ethnicities and more.”

Other businesses, including newspapers, radio stations and television stations, for example, use census data to determine market penetration and where to target new readers, listeners and viewers.

Each is depending on an accurate census count to make the right call.

“The country runs on this stuff,” Reamer said. “The uses go everywhere.”