Topics / Census

Who Counts? What Counts? The 2020 Census and Beyond

The census will impact virtually every aspect of American life for the next decade, informing the distribution of $8 trillion in public funds for a range of social services. But it’s not all about money. The census is key to the allocation of political power

Credit: Pierre-Paul Pariseau

The coronavirus pandemic, a cascade of layoffs and business closures, ongoing mass antiracism protests, and a presidential election in November. These realities, among other challenges, make up the backdrop of the 2020 Census as the U.S. Census Bureau continues a national head count that it has conducted once every decade since the presidency of George Washington. 

The census has seldom been as important — for students, parents, mayors, governors, the ill, the poor, educators, entrepreneurs, health and social service providers, and city planners, among others. While the principal use of the information collected in the census, as identified in the Constitution, is to apportion seats for the U.S. House of Representatives, the data also serves a host of other purposes. It will be used to enforce civil rights and housing laws, and to fund services such as child welfare, school lunches, and disability programs. The 2020 Census will affect federal payouts until 2030, totaling trillions of dollars and shaping decisions great and small. 

The huge amounts of money at stake demonstrate the importance of the census. For example, more than $1.5 trillion in federal funds was dispersed during fiscal year 2017 for 316 programs directed to cities, towns, and state governments on the basis of 2010 census counts and analyses. In fiscal 2016 alone, California, the most populous state, received $115 billion in federal monies tied to the results of the 2010 Census. 

Health care, disaster preparedness, and transportation, among many other resources and services, are allocated according to the respective size of each state, based on census counts. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, recently distributed trillions of federal stimulus monies to states using data from the 2010 Census. 

“Census numbers have a life across the decade,” according to Kenneth Prewitt, former director of the United States Census Bureau and Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs at Columbia University. “If a state is shortchanged in the apportionment of congressional representation or a school system is shortchanged in new construction funds, it’s not a one-year problem but a ten-year problem.” 

Census data is used to track population trends for infrastructure projects, for commissioning factories and launching products, and for deciding where and how to invest philanthropic resources.


The census sets the table as well for public, private, and nonprofit decision makers, who in the coming decade look likely to face greater stresses than they did during the 2010s. States and municipalities, weighed down by recession, will be short on revenues, even as spending on unemployment and other social service programs will need to increase. Census data is used to track population trends for infrastructure projects, for commissioning factories and launching products, and for deciding where and how to invest philanthropic resources. 

“There is not a Costco or a Starbucks sited in this country without the census,” according to research economist Andrew Reamer, who specializes in census-based funding at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “The Census is like our economy’s plumbing. Lots of decisions flow through that data.” 

Even before COVID-19 hit in the spring, the 2020 count was already facing intense challenges. “There were major concerns about the ability of the U.S. Census Bureau to achieve a fair and accurate count in the 2020 Census,” says Geri Mannion, director of Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Strengthening U.S. Democracy program. “The census is one of the most important elements of the U.S. democracy framework — and it is a constitutional requirement.” 

Five years ago, 15 major philanthropies, including Carnegie Corporation of New York, joined together to establish the Funders Census Initiative (FCI), working to make sure that the 2020 Census included hard-to-count populations that had been underrepresented in the 2010 Census. Since then, the initiative has raised $90 million from philanthropic institutions and leveraged another $350 million from government and other sources to ensure a fair and accurate count. The initiative has focused on advocacy, communications, organizing, litigation, and public education to ensure that census operations are adequately funded by the federal government. 


FCI helped litigate a citizenship question that the Trump administration sought to add to the census form, a move ultimately blocked by the Supreme Court. But despite the win in court, mistrust of government lingers among people of color and immigrants, potentially decreasing census participation by these households. According to a 2018 Census Bureau survey, 60 percent of the public mistrusts the federal government; 53 percent believe the census is used to locate the undocumented; 28 percent doubt that the Census Bureau will keep their answers confidential; and one in five Americans believes census answers can be used against them. As Mannion explained in an interview with Carnegie Corporation of New York grantee GCIR (Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees), “The citizenship question, even though it is no longer on the census form, left behind a lot of fear of filling out the form, especially in immigrant communities.” 

“The Funders Census Initiative is an excellent example of how foundations — at the national, regional, state, and local levels — can work collectively toward fixing a problem that we know is coming and to really engage around it in advance,” Mannion said during 2020 Census & COVID-19: What Funders Can Do to Support a Fair and Accurate Count, a Council on Foundations webinar. “Here we actually thought about it five years out. And that has paid off.” 

Undercounts are always a big concern, and the pandemic has heightened worries about the demographics that are historically difficult to count, such as low-income and minority populations, children under the age of five, and residents of rural communities and Native American reservations. According to the Census Bureau, in the 2010 Census, Black Americans were undercounted by more than 2 percent and Hispanics by 1 percent, while nearly 5 percent of Native Americans on reservations were missed. In addition, nearly 5 percent of all children under age five were not counted — that is one in every 20 kids. 


These undercounts most heavily impact marginalized communities, and part of what census funders do is spread the word about the critical importance of the once-a-decade count. With support from the Corporation’s Democracy and Education programs, the nonprofit Simply Put Media produced and promoted We Count! — a “2020 Census counting book for young children and the grownups who love them.” Translated into 15 languages, the illustrated book encourages families to participate in the 2020 Census to ensure that they — and their young children — are accurately counted. 

While the pandemic and related school closures affecting 55 million K–12 students have played havoc with the campaigns meant to boost census participation, the pandemic itself has illuminated issues of inequality and access. “We are seeing public institutions, such as hospitals, schools, and other support systems, being disrupted and overburdened right now,” says LaVerne Evans Srinivasan, vice president of Carnegie Corporation of New York’s National Program. “In ordinary times, people aren’t as worried about the census, but now we are actually focusing on how hospitals are funded, how schools are funded. On the one hand, public attention has shifted to the pandemic. But on another level, the pandemic has actually brought to the fore the issues that the census and the funding behind it are designed to address.” 

The stakes for schools, especially those coping with concentrations of social dysfunction and chronic underfunding, are especially high in the 2020 Census, according to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers labor union. Any discrepancies will drag on a school for the next 10 years — until there are adjustments following the 2030 census. 

“Wherever there are undercounts, students will not get the resources they need. A lot of resources, like Title I and Medicaid, are tied to the data,” Weingarten told the Carnegie Reporter

Weingarten, whose union has 1.7 million members, said schools serving students from broken, impoverished, or otherwise dysfunctional homes will be especially vulnerable. 

“I think we are going into recession, just as we are getting back some of the funding from the last one,” she said. “Even still, 21 states are spending less on public education than they were when the last recession came around.” 

Beyond dollars and cents, Weingarten said, the census at its best promotes democracy and a better civil society by identifying and bringing into the public fold people and groups that are newly arrived or struggling to assimilate. 

“It is important for people to be seen, and the census makes sure that happens,” says Weingarten. 

Keeping Tabs U.S. Census Bureau workers transferring data to punch cards that will be used with mechanical statistical machines. Washington, D.C., ca. 1940. (Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

To ensure the highest census counts possible, U.S. philanthropies, nonprofits, local governments, and many states had been campaigning through schools, community centers, social services, and other agencies before the country was hit with the COVID-19 lockdown. Indeed, most schools were closed by the time official Census Day (April 1) rolled around — and outreach efforts and campaigns to get people to complete the census were forced to move online. 

“People were and are concerned that there may be an undercount,” according to Ambika Kapur, who leads the Education program’s Public Understanding portfolio at Carnegie Corporation of New York. “The census allocates billions of federal dollars for education. Schools and districts have been actively concerned and have been encouraging communities to complete the census.” 

The census is also key to the allocation of raw political power. State legislatures will be rejiggered by redistricting based on the results of the 2020 Census. The House of Representatives’ 435 seats will be reallocated among states after the census, and the U.S. Electoral College — the body that ultimately determines who will move into the Oval Office (and which has twice since 2000 overruled the popular vote) — reapportions its seats among the states following each census.


Like much of the country, the Census Bureau was deeply affected by the coronavirus pandemic and suspended most operations for six weeks beginning in March. It is now targeting its door-knocking enumerating surveys for August. The customary June 30 completion deadline has been extended to October 31 — three days before the November 3 election.

The census is also key to the allocation of raw political power. State legislatures will be rejiggered by redistricting based on the results of the 2020 Census. The House of Representatives’ 435 seats will be reallocated among states after the census, and the U.S. Electoral College — the body that ultimately determines who will move into the Oval Office (and which has twice since 2000 overruled the popular vote) — reapportions its seats among the states following each census. 

Florida and Texas look to be the biggest winners in the coming postcensus reallocations. Each of those rapidly growing states will gain two or more House seats, giving them more pull in Congress, while five other Western and Southern states will pick up seats, according to a Brookings Institution analysis. 

“Ten states are projected to lose one seat each. The most noteworthy of these is California, which has never lost a House seat via reapportionment,” said William Frey, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Other states projected to lose seats are located in the Midwest (Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio), the Northeast (Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island) and slow-growing parts of the South (West Virginia, Alabama).”

Subscribe to the Carnegie Reporter. It’s free!

As of July 14, before census workers had begun knocking on doors, the response rate was 62.1 percent, which translates to 91,800,000 households that have returned the questionnaire by mail or responded to it online. That appears to be a respectable rate, especially considering the profound disruptions of COVID-19 quarantining and the attendant widespread economic disruptions, but it is significantly shy of the comparable 2010 response rate of 66.5 percent. 

According to the UN Population Fund, a national census is one of the biggest tasks short of going to war that a government undertakes. The U.S. Census in 2020 is expected to cost $92 per American household, up from $16 in 1970. The most labor-intensive part of the census involves enumerators – door knockers more commonly known as census takers – who will canvas households from Alaska to the Florida Keys, tracking down and questioning in person the millions of households who have not yet responded to the census questionnaire. 

Each U.S. Census builds on its predecessors and innovates. This year’s head count is the first to allow U.S. residents to respond online, as well as by filling in traditional printed forms or by speaking to an enumerator. Census officials also rolled out algorithms meant to enhance the security of private details. Census workers in New York City, where local officials claimed 50,000 people in Queens and Brooklyn were missed during the 2010 head count, are redoubling efforts on outliers such as a crowded block on Grand Street in lower Manhattan where not a single person returned a completed census form a decade ago. 

As Mannion points out, America’s democracy begins with counting every individual, in spite of, and particularly in light of, present challenges. “For the next decade, long after the COVID-19 pandemic is hopefully over, data from the 2020 Census will be used to give classrooms and public health facilities the federal funding they need, communities the democratic representation they deserve, and more. Amid the fears of today, the census is as essential and as vital as ever.”

Michael Connor is a journalist and former correspondent and editor for the Reuters news agency. A graduate of Fordham University and Columbia University, he has been published in the New York Times, Commonweal, Newsday, and other news outlets.

TOP: In April 1950, Kiyto Sugiuia and his wife, owners of the Elsinore Hotel in Denver, were interviewed by census bureau enumerator Leo J. Cronin. With the Sugiuias are their two children, Noma and Shuni. (Credit: Al Moldvay/The Denver Post via Getty Images)