The 2020 U.S. Census is just around the corner, and the results will mean a lot for everyone in Kentucky.
Let’s put aside all the recent attempts to politicize the Census, and look at why the results matter so much — especially for rural areas.
The Census is an attempt, made every 10 years, to count every single person living in the U.S. You may wonder why it matters exactly how many people live here, or you might point out we already know or can estimate how many people live here.
But population numbers change over time. And a lot of the sources we use for estimating the U.S. population actually start from Census data. Saying we don’t need the Census because we already know how many people live here is like saying we don’t need utility workers because we already have electricity running to our homes.
It may not be instantly obvious why it matters if we have an accurate count of people, but it’s actually foundational to how our country operates. Our federal government collects billions and billions in taxes from the people living here, and it uses that money (on a good day) to provide services those people have decided they want, via their representatives in Congress.
Census data are essential to making sure those services go where they are supposed to go. The population counts generated by the Census every 10 years are used to decide how more than $675 billion is allocated for education, transportation and our social safety nets.
State and local governments get funding from the federal government based on Census data.
School districts get Title I and special education funding based on how many kids the Census says live in the area. Funding for the National Highway System is determined by how much traffic there should be on the roads, based on counts from the Census.
Any group of people or geographic regions that get undercounted in the Census won’t get all the federal funding to which they are entitled. Social and racial minorities can be hurt when undercounting occurs, because the out-of-balance funding can perpetuate and amplify disadvantages those groups already face. Geographic minorities — rural residents — can also be hit hard by undercounting.
Rural populations are smaller and less dense than urban populations, which can make counting harder. And any undercounting will affect rural areas disproportionately: If you fail to count two people out of 10,000 in a city, it barely makes a dent in the total — your count will be under by two one-hundredths of 1 percent. If you fail to count two people out of 100 living in a rural farming community, that community just lost 2 percent of its rightful federal funding.
That’s just the financial side of things; the Census also determines how well represented our community is in Congress.
There are exactly 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, regardless of how many people there are living in the U.S. After every Census, those seats are apportioned to each state based on how many people live there. What that means is a state can gain or lose influence in Congress based on whether its population grew.
Today, Kentucky has six congressional seats, but 100 years ago, we had almost double — 11. A strong showing on the Census won’t really win a state back any congressional seats it’s not entitled to, but it is essential to guaranteeing the state has the level of representation it deserves.
(Kentucky isn’t projected to lose or gain seats in 2020, according to the Brennan Center for Justice; Texas is projected to gain the most at three seats and New York is projected to lose the most at two seats.)
If we want our students to get the education our federal tax dollars pay for; if we want our roads to be maintained in good condition; if we want those living in poverty in our community to have the best chances at rising into the middle class, then we need to make sure every single person here is counted by the Census.
Every person not counted represents federal money and congressional influence we are entitled to but aren’t getting.