Cities and the Census: A Call to Action

February 14, 2020 - (4 min read)

“I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Sherlock Holmes

Data is objective. Data is nonpartisan. Data can prevent us from acting insensibly. When we look at data through the frame of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, we can see why data should be the basis of shared theories, decision-making, and truth.

It’s especially appropriate to think about data from this vantage point as we near Census Day 2020. As required by the U.S. Constitution, residents from coast to coast will partake in the once-a-decade collection of information about people in our communities. It is one of the most important expressions of our democracy and its importance to the future of cities, towns, and villages cannot be understated.

First and foremost, census figures determine political representation – electoral lines for all levels of government, allocation of seats for the U.S. House of Representatives, and the number of Electoral College votes that each state receives. In a presidential election year, this point is particularly poignant.

For local leaders, even more consequential is that census data determine how more than $1.5 trillion of federal funding is allocated across state and local governments. There are 316 federal programs that rely on census-derived figures, and without accurate data, local governments and the residents they serve can miss out on millions of dollars in federal support – from low-income housing loans and rural hospital grants to SNAP benefits and CDBG dollars.

And on top of all that, the decennial census provides a massive repository of free data that fuel critical economic, social and medical research – research that helps inform local decision-making, programming and policy development.

Unfortunately, there are parts of our population that are historically considered “hard-to-count” – children under five, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, people experiencing homelessness, and single-parent households, to name a few. Whether it be the result of language barriers, mistrust in government, living arrangements, lack of broadband access, or other physical barriers, undercounts and inaccuracies of census data can have a multitude of negative implications for these communities and their municipal governments.

Simple math reveals the outsized impact that even a small undercount can have on a resident and their community. Take a single-parent household with three children under the age of five, for example. Each person in that family could account for up to $4,900 in federal support for their local government. Multiplied over 10 years, that family of four could lose out on almost $200,000 of investment in their community. Or, what if one homeless shelter goes uncounted, with 30 individuals and two families of three? A city will lose $177,000 of investment in federally funded programs in the first year. Over ten years, that amount would reach nearly $2 million.

Local officials are the most trusted level of government, and therefore they can and should play a leadership role in ensuring a fair and accurate census count, especially for hard-to-count communities. The good news is, it’s not too late to take action.

NLC has a number of resources to help local officials prepare for the census. Our municipal action guide provides an overview of the census, including new features for 2020 such as the increased reliance on technology. It also has detailed suggestions and a number of resources specific to cities, towns and villages. If you haven’t read this guide yet, do so immediately.

NLC also has a Local Census Preparedness Network, where we share the latest information and contacts to support local communities. I encourage every municipal government to identify someone to get engaged with the network so that you can stay up-to-date on the latest resources and announcements.

There’s no question that executing a fair and accurate census count is an all-hands-on-deck effort. Our work in 2020 will set the stage for a decade of decision-making. Don’t let assumption and insensibility twist our reality. Don’t commit a “capital mistake.” Let’s get the data. Let’s get our communities counted.

Headshot_newAbout the Author: Clarence E. Anthony is the CEO & Executive Director of the National League of Cities. Follow him on Twitter: @ceanthony50.