States and the Census: Expanding Outreach, Maximizing Federal Funding and Assuring Equal Representation

The decennial Census is well underway nationwide, with Census forms (at ten critical questions, the shortest form in history) landing in mailboxes right now.  Yet at a time of historic budget deficits at the state and federal level, increasing levels of income inequality, and fundamental questions on the responsibilities of state and federal governments with respect to crafting policy, it is possible that this Census may be one of the most important in recent decades.

With both federal funds and representation in Congress at stake, many states and local communities are taking an active role to maximize their engagement and benefit from the Census.  This Dispatch will outline strategies that include crafting outreach and education initiatives that integrate city and state government agencies with grassroots organizations and local media to ensure 'Hard-to-Count' residents are included in the Census; enacting state legislation that mandates prisoners are counted in their home districts rather than in that of their prisons, and proactively considering principles for redistricting legislative districts that move beyond uniquely partisan concerns to addressing the needs of district residents.  This Dispatch will also aim to provide some of these best practices and highlight resources, all with a view toward preparing states to engage effectively with the 2010 and — looking forward — 2020 Census.


Table of Contents:

- What’s At Stake for States in the 2010 Census?

- How States Can Reach Hard-to-Count Populations

- Where to Count Prisoners?

- The Census: Implications for Redistricting and State Politics

- Conference Call Recording

- Conclusion

What’s At Stake for States in the 2010 Census?

The Constitutionally-mandated count of the nation’s residents has occurred every ten years since 1790, and is intended to provide an accurate tally of the nation’s population.  In addition, the Census intentionally obtains information about all residents, regardless of their immigration status.  In fact, information obtained through the Census is confidential, and all Census employees sign an oath of confidentiality to not share information obtained through the Census to other state or federal government agencies. 

By attempting to provide an accurate count of the nation’s residents, along with some very basic questions about themselves and their families, the Census uses population statistics and other demographic characteristics to determine representation in Congress and key federal funding levels to states.  Therefore, states and communities gain considerably from being informed and engaged with the Census process.

Billions at Stake:  States are the single-largest recipients of Census-guided funding. In FY 2009, over $400 billion in annual federal grants destined for states were based on data obtained through the decennial Census — a figure that accounts for roughly 85% of federal funding to states.  This includes Medicaid grants to states, which alone accounts for 58% of Census-based funding.  Others major categories of federal funding to states based on Census data include funding for state education departments, Section 8 vouchers for subsidized housing, and transportation infrastructure and highways planning.  In particular, middle class communities stand to gain expanded federal funding for local infrastructure and school districts, according to a recent Drum Major Institute report.  

Moreover, Census data is also used as a basis for several other federal dataset processes and funding streams, including the annual American Community Survey, which has absorbed many of the previous questions on the Census ”˜long form’.  Major public policy decisions at the state and local level are also based upon initial Census data, and many large private-sector companies look to Census data for their market analyses as they decide where to open new locations for their retail stores.  Finally, the number of residents (not voters) measured in a particular area via the Census also determines the size and shape of federal, state, and local legislative districts. 

Particularly at a time of deep state fiscal deficits, the stakes are very high: demographers estimate that for each resident missed in the 2010 Census, the state stands to lose over $11,400 in federal funding over the next decade.  States also have much to gain from an accurate count of residents through the Census: each additional person counted in the 2000 Census resulted in an increased annual Medicaid reimbursement to the state of several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending upon the state. 

The Census Project
Nonprofit Voter Engagement Network - What’s At Stake?
Nonprofit Voter Engagement Network - Census By the Numbers
Brookings Institute - Census 2010: Counting for Dollars
Nonprofit Voter Engagement Network - State-by-State Resources on Census Funding
Pew Research Center - Poll:  Americans’ willingness to participate in the Census

How States Can Reach Hard-to-Count Populations

The Census has increasingly struggled in recent decades to reach all residents, particularly the nation’s undocumented immigrants, low-income communities of color, and the homeless — often referred to as ”˜Hard to Count’ communities.  A broad roster of community based organizations, local media, and state and local government agencies are working closely with Census regional offices to maximize awareness of the Census and the confidentiality of the information it obtains, and  to consequently minimize the number of residents who go uncounted in the Census.  According to a PriceWaterhouseCoopers study on the 2000 Census commissioned by the Census bureau, roughly 3.4 million US residents went uncounted — a figure that resulted in over $4 billion in federal funding lost to the District of Columbia and 31 affected states.  

Unfortunately, supplemental state funding available to community groups and local media for Census outreach in 2010 is dramatically lower relative to the 2000 Census due to state budget deficits and the fiscal crisis.  While some foundations have banded together to provide some supplemental funding to community groups and ethnic media, many demographers and Census experts are particularly worried about a potential Census 2010 undercount larger in size and scope than the 2000 Census undercount. 

State and Local Models for Outreach:  A few local and state models for coordinating outreach have made a difference.  New York City’s approach toward Census engagement is regarded by many as a national model due to its Mayor’s Office of the Census, which serves to coordinate and create partnerships between key city agencies (including, for example, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and Census Regional Managers); elected officials; community based organizations with roots in hard-to-count communities; and the ethnic media.  New York City's strategy builds upon a critical mass of grassroots organizations with strong roots in hard-to-count communities; a strong existing City policy that prohibits city agencies from asking residents' immigration status when they are not accused of a crime; and a vibrant independent and ethnic media able to effectively reach many of these communities.  New York City's Census Office was also able to begin developing its relationships with other city agencies and crafting its collaborative outreach strategies early - the Office, the first dedicated Census office in New York City history, was created in April 2009, nearly a full year before Census forms were mailed to residents. 

Designating a city or state Census office to effectively coordinate between state agencies, grassroots organizations, local businesses, and local media is critical to states maximizing their engagement with the Census, and some states have followed New York City's lead.  Minnesota established a State Office of the Census well before forms were mailed out, and has been coordinating with nonprofits and business leaders to encourage residents to fill out and return their Census forms at community events.  In other states such as Illinois, good government organizations such as the League of Women Voters spurred state agencies and Census regional directors to develop Census outreach and education plans.  Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn designated the League of Women Voters as the lead agency coordinating the state's Census 2010 strategy to minimize the undercount via state Complete Count Committees, which include Census regional directors, other state and local government agencies, grassroots organizations and local media.   

Community Group Efforts in Outreach:  With limited funds, community groups and civic organizations have had to step up to assure an accurate count is conducted in states and local communities across the country.  Outreach to many communities nationwide have been largely spearheaded by community groups, labor unions, and ethnic media.  

  • The bilingual Ya Es Hora, Hagase Contar! campaign has gathered Spanish-language media behemoths Univision and ImpreMedia to partner with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Latino advocacy organizations such as the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO), the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) to encourage Latinos nationwide, including undocumented immigrants, to participate in the Census via community outreach events, written materials, and public service announcements (PSAs). 
  • Parallel efforts are also being coordinated by the Asian American Justice Center, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which are collaborating with community-based organizations from hard-to-count communities to educate residents on the confidentiality of information obtained through the Census, and the importance of filling out the Census form. 
  • Homeless populations are also viewed as a perennial challenge to include in the Census tally; the Nonprofit Voter Engagement Network offers “Counting the Homeless”, a useful fact sheet that outlines strategies to ensure the homeless are included in Census 2010 outreach efforts.  

Reaching Suburban and Rural Residents:  While many may view hard-to-count populations as concentrated in urban areas, suburban and rural communities face some of the most widespread challenges to being included in the Census, and also stand to gain considerably from participation in the Census.  As the Drum Major Institute notes in its report on the value for the nation’s middle class of including the undocumented in the Census, suburban and rural communities can gain community centers, institutions such as public libraries, and even retail locations from an accurate Census count that takes into account the growing number of residents in the region. The League of Rural Voters has been encouraging rural communities to participate in the Census, and has published a useful Census Guide that outlines what is at stake for rural communities and how they can benefit from maximizing their participation in the Census. 

City University of New York Mapping Center - 2010 Census Hard-to-Count Maps
Nonprofit Voter Engagement Network - Counting the Homeless
League of Rural Voters - League of Rural Voters Census Guide
US Census Bureau - Interactive Map of Mail Response Rates to the 2000 Census
Drum Major Institute for Public Policy - The Next Economic Imperative:  Undocumented Immigrants in the 2010 Census
Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees - California Counts!

Where to Count Prisoners?

The debate on the Census tally of prisoners is a longstanding one and an extremely relevant one for states.  Unless otherwise specified by state law, prisoners are counted based on their physical location at the time the Census occurs, on April 1 of the Census year.  However, many state and federal prisons are so large their residents account for a significant share of a particular community’s total residents, even as prisoners do not access services or contribute to the economy via state and local tax contributions.  In many cases large prisons are intentionally included in legislative districts that may lack enough non-incarcerated residents to meet the state's population threshold for a legislative district.  Many advocates argue this creates a fundamental imbalance between prisoners’ home districts and where they are incarcerated, resulting in a dramatic loss of political representation and Census funding for prisoners’ home districts.

Distorted State Funding Decisions:  According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 21% of counties in the US include prisoners that account for 20% or more of their total population.  As a result, large numbers of prisoners effectively end up diverting large amounts of federal resources from their home communities to their prison's district - often without the ability to choose their representatives by voting, because many felons are ineligible to vote.  Many communities are increasingly viewing prisoners as critical sources of federal revenue:  for example Florence, Arizona has a free population of 5,000 and an incarcerated population of 12,000.  The town's incarcerated population brings $4 million in state and federal funding, compared to only $1.8 million for free residents.  Nearby towns, viewing prisoners as cash cows, also fought to absorb prisons into their districts, underlining the imbalance and inequity created when prisoners are counted in their prison's district.  Conversely, the home communities of prisoners where their children or families live lose out on millions of dollars in federal and state aid.  

Distorted Representation:  21 counties in the US have more than 20% or their population as prisoners.  For example, New York state packs in tens of thousands of prisoners imported from New York City into a number of other less populated counties around the state.  In fact, seven state Senate districts would not be constitutional if the prisoners in their state prisons were not included in the district's population.  Similar distorted representational patterns have also been found in other states, including Texas, Nevada, Montana and Wisconsin.

Fixing the Prison Count:  The Prisoners of the Census project outlines in greater detail how states can enact legislation to address this imbalance.  States can enact legislation or introduce resolutions to address this issue by either counting prisoners in the district of their last residential address, or the less ideal proposal to exclude prisoners from the population data used to draw district lines, which over 100 counties and other municipalities have already enacted.  There are currently bills or resolutions in nine states and one federal bill (HR 2075), introduced by Rep. Gene Green (D-TX) that attempt to address the issue of counting prisoners in the Census — a pressing one given the large percentage of young men of color who are currently incarcerated. 

Prison Policy Initiative - Prisoners of the Census
Progressive States Network - Prisoners of the Census:  How the Incarcerated are Counted Distorts Our Politics

The Census: Implications for Redistricting and State Politics

After an updated population tally through the Census, Congressional, state, and city legislative districts are reconfigured to ensure the number of residents in each district remains equal.  The redistricting process is usually extremely political, using a wide range of approaches often based on incumbent and partisan interests. 

Some Guidance for Redistricting:  Given the multiple issues involved, it's hard to posit one approach to redistricting as perfectly "neutral," but there are principles worth promoting, some of which the Brennan Center outlines in its A Citizen's Guide to Redistricting, including:

  • Some type of independent commission should be used so incumbent legislators are not drawing the lines under which they will then run for office;
  • Establish priority of criteria for drawing district lines -- such as maintaining no more than a 5% population variance and preserving county lines -- before starting the process to give guidance to both commissions and courts in judging the results;
  • Protect minority representation;
  • Think about representing communities of interest, whether economic or social, that diverge from traditional political jurisdictions, but require the redistricting body to publicly identify the particular community protected by any district’s deviation from other, more objective, criteria.

California has advanced one model for redistricting with its Citizens Redistricting Commission (established via state ballot measure), which is nonpartisan and open to residents.

Addressing Civil Rights in Redistricting:  Since states have ultimate control over the shape and composition of legislative districts, partisan concerns often outweigh other considerations such as racial and ethnic composition and socioeconomic status.  Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has added to the problem with its opinion last year that limited the extent to which Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act (the 'minority vote dilution' provision) can be used to prevent minority voter dilution.  The Asian American Justice Center, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund have put together an excellent toolkit outlining the legal framework for redistricting and the requirements for redistricting under the Voting Rights Act, including the problem of minority voter dilution, where minority communities are either concentrated into a small number of districts (packing) or spread them thinly into a large number of districts (fracturing or splitting).  The toolkit details what steps states need to take to legally address discrimination within the context of other redistricting requirements.

Progressive States Network - Redistricting Reform
Brennan Center for Justice -  A Citizen's Guide to Redistricting
Democratic Leadership Council - Gerrymandering the Vote: How a 'Dirty Dozen' States Suppress as Many as 9  Million Voters

Conference Call Recording

Progressive States Network hosted a national conference call on Thursday, April 1st at 3 pm EST, to discuss the implications of the decennial Census for state and local communities and how states can maximize their benefits from engaging with the Census process.

On the call, speakers discussed best practices in state and local coordination on the Census; outlined lessons learned from the 2000 Census and how they can be applied to this year's effort; highlighted outreach and education strategies to include hard-to-count communities, including rural populations, in the Census tally; and discussed proactive legislative action states can take to ensure fair redistricting practices.

Speakers on the call will include:

To listen to a recording of the call, visit


While the Census is a federal process, states gain considerably from maximizing their participation and engagement with the Census.  Apart from securing funding for much-needed services and programs, particularly in the midst of historic budget deficits, states can address the voting rights concerns of prisoners, consider the needs of undocumented immigrant families, and begin to move beyond solely partisan concerns as they consider the composition and priorities of legislative districts.