States spend big bucks on census preparation

Massachusetts is spending an unprecedented $6.25 million to make sure all of its residents are counted as part of the 2020 census. As part of the outreach, Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office has printed posters in multiple languages, seeking to calm fears and clear up misconceptions about the decennial count.

BOSTON — With political clout in Washington, D.C., and billions of dollars in federal funding at stake, Massachusetts and more than a dozen other states are spending unprecedented amounts of money on outreach and preparation for the 2020 census to get the decennial count right.

Collectively, at least 27 states have spent or committed more than $316 million to the effort, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Massachusetts has earmarked at least $6.25 million this fiscal year for census outreach and preparation, the seventh-largest amount among all states.

The state is pegging $3.5 million for competitive grants to community groups and local governments to do public outreach, as well as $2.75 million for technical assistance and post-census work, according to the Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees the state’s count. The money was allocated by the Legislature as part of the state budget.

“This is the first time in Massachusetts and other states when an enormous amount of money is being devoted to get a full count,” said Eva Millona, who chairs the state’s Complete Count Committee that is coordinating the outreach. “It’s extremely important that we make these investments because the Census is about power, money and respect.”

Much of the money is going to cities, towns and community organizations, she said, because they have stronger ties and more credibility with hard-to-count populations such as low-income residents, immigrants, transient college students, the elderly and indigenous peoples.

Millona, who is also executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said the outreach is aimed at making sure everyone is counted.

It’s a task complicated by misconceptions that the information will misused and fears of the federal government in many immigrant communities, she said.

In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates more than 1 in 5 people in Massachusetts did not respond to the 2010 census.

Big outreach

Spending on census outreach in Massachusetts is dwarfed by more populous states such as Illinois, New York and California, which are putting huge sums of money toward public education.

California is spending more than any other state, or $187 million, and sending workers to knock on doors as part of a mini census ahead of the nationwide count.

Illinois plans to spend $84.5 million, while Washington is pledging $15.5 million to the effort, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

New York is pledging $20 million while New York City, the nation’s most populous city, recently committed to spending $40 million on preparation.

Texas, New Hampshire and Maine, by comparison, are among about 20 states that haven’t allocated any money specifically for census outreach.

For many states, their spending for 2020 is a significant jump from past decades, including 10 years ago when the recession restricted many state budgets.

While the U.S. Census Bureau spends $500 million on education and outreach ahead of the count, the agency isn’t providing direct funding to states.

The constitutionally mandated census is required to count the country’s entire population every 10 years. It asks questions about race, marital status and other topics.

But there’s a lot more at stake for state and local governments than vital statistics.

High stakes

Census data determines funding formulas for the next decade for federal spending on infrastructure, health care, education and affordable housing.

More than $1.5 trillion in funding for state and local governments is parceled out based on census data, according to Andrew Reamer, a professor and researcher at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy, who is studying the role of the census in the distribution of federal funds.

Medicare accounted for almost half of the funding, more than $710 billion, according to the research.

Reamer said the sizable expenditures are a safe bet for the states making them, given the amount of federal funding that’s on the table.

“From a taxpayer perspective, the return on that investment could be multiple times what they are spending,” he said. “They stand to get a lot in return.”

In fiscal 2017, Massachusetts received more than $38.2 billion in federal funding that was connected to census data, Reamer said, citing his latest research.

The federal dollars went to everything from transportation, health care and community development block grants to affordable housing, special education and school breakfast programs.

Besides guiding how federal money is distributed, this year’s census also will determine how many congressional seats each state receives.

Massachusetts, for example, has nine representatives in Congress, which could increase or decrease depending on the count.

The state lost a congressional seat after the 2010 count, when its population — then estimated at 6,547,629 — didn’t grow as fast as the national average.

In 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimate for Massachusetts population was 6,902,149, a growth of 5.4% in nine years.

Rhode Island — which stands to lose one of its two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives — is spending about $500,000 on census preparations and outreach.

Nonprofit push

States that don’t devote money and resources to preparation risk undercounting their population, and could risk losing federal dollars to other states.

New Hampshire, which received more than $3.7 billion in federal funding in fiscal 2016 based on census data, preparations are supported by nonprofits concerned about a loss of federal funding.

A coalition of nonprofits called the New Hampshire Funders Forum has committed to hiring a part-time consultant for census outreach.

“A lot of it is being done at the local level,” said Ken Gallager, a planner with New Hampshire’s Office of Strategic Initiatives who heads the state’s Complete Count Committee.

“While it would be nice to have additional funds for outreach, there’s a lot of people coming together to do what they can with their own resources to get the word out,” he said.

Massachusetts has also set up local Complete Count Committees for outreach to officials and community groups that can help ensure more people are counted.

Concerns about undercounted populations were stoked by efforts from the Trump administration to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. The move was ultimately blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court, but not before it raised concerns that immigrants and their families — even those living in the U.S. legally — would avoid the count.

Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the unprecedented spending on census preparation underscores that a lot is at stake.

“It’s unusual to have this much money pouring into census outreach by states,” she said. “I think it shows that the connection between the census data and federal funding to the states is clearer than its ever been. The states understand that if they can get everyone counted more federal money will flow to them.”

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. 

State totals for census funding

California, $187 million

Illinois, $84.5 million

New York, $20 million

Washington, $15.5 million

New Jersey, $9 million

Oregon, $7.7 million

Massachusetts, $6.25 million

Colorado, $6 million

Maryland, $5 million

Nevada, $5 million

Pennsylvania, $4 million

Georgia, $3.8 million

New Mexico, $3.5 million

Minnesota, $2.2 million

North Carolina, $1.5 million

Virginia, $1.5 million

Alabama, $1.24 million

Utah, $1 million

North Dakota, $1 million

Wisconsin, $1 million

Alaska, $600,000

Missouri, $501,650

Rhode Island, $500,000

Connecticut, $500,000

Michigan, $500,000

Montana, $100,000

Source: National Conference of State Legislatures

Recommended for you