Urban Edge explains: The decennial census and why it’s more important than ever


For those who haven’t completed the ongoing 2020 Census, an important reason to respond online, by phone or by mail to the nine-question survey is the neighbor next door, two doors down or down the street.

artwork for Harris County census campaign

For those who haven’t completed the ongoing 2020 Census, an important reason to respond online, by phone or by mail to the nine-question survey is the neighbor next door, two doors down or down the street.

Just like social distancing measures, communities are reliant on residents’ full participation in the census to make it as beneficial as possible for as many as possible.

COVID-19 has amplified the gaps that separate the haves and the have-nots in our society. The pandemic has underscored the underlying disparities — racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, health and health care, educational, child care, housing and food access — that have long existed in America. The effectiveness of many of the services established to address these disparities depends on the accuracy of the 2020 Census.

The “Urban Edge Explains …” series explores issues and concepts that are important to urban planning and policy experts. Today, we look at the significance of the decennial census, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

As of March 1, one death in the U.S. was attributed to COVID-19. By April 1, that total was more than 4,000. As of May 3, the disease had killed more than 67,500.

The impact of accuracy

Accurate results of the once-a-decade census also are important because they determine the number of seats Texas has in the U.S. House of Representatives as well as how congressional and state legislative districts are divvied up. Houston could lose representation if there is an inaccurate and incomplete count.

This post is part of our “COVID-19 and Cities” series, which features experts’ views on the global pandemic and its impact on our lives.

So far, more than 56% of households have responded nationally. In Texas, the response rate is 51% and, as magnification on the map is increased, the rates decrease to 50.5% in Harris County and just over 47% in Houston. In 2010, the final self-response rates were 64.4% in the state overall, 65.1% in Harris County and 63.5% in Houston, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

So, what does that mean?

How undercounts impact on the local level

For Houston, an accurate and complete count in the decennial (every 10 years) census means the city receives its fair share of federal funding for programs and public services Houston residents need. An undercount could mean the loss of as much as $5 billion in federal funding over the next decade.

Federally funded programs and projects include after school programs and school lunch programs, food programs like SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), funding for highway and other infrastructure projects, access to health care through programs like Medicare, Medicaid and CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program), funding for affordable housing and workforce housing and disaster recovery.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unmet housing, employment and medical needs for many here in Houston and across the U.S. In response to the economic plunge that resulted from social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders to slow the disease’s spread, Congress passed the CARES Act, which established the $150 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund. The fund provides coronavirus disaster assistance to American workers and their families (stimulus payments) as well as hospitals and health care providers and small businesses. State and local governments also are eligible for funding to help residents navigate the impacts of the outbreak. Census data is used to determine how to appropriate the funds.

The expansion of the census

The Decennial Census Program includes both the decennial census and the American Community Survey (ACS). Information on employment, educational attainment, ancestry, housing, citizenship status, income, disability and more is gathered monthly (and released annually) through the ACS. Launched in 2005, the data generated by the ACS help determine the distribution of more than $675 million in state and federal funding every year.

The data also are used for post-census population projections and to inform planning decisions for schools and hospitals as well as improvements to emergency services and infrastructure such as bridges. And it impacts the choices business leaders make about adding jobs and expanding to new markets.

For example, as Jie Wu, the director of research management at the Kinder Institute, points out, school districts use the information and other data, such as housing and land-use data, to make student population projections that help them understand possible capacity needs for each school and make expansion plans, accordingly. Undercounts of young children, which Wu says is a known issue in large cities like Houston, is likely to compromise school planning.

The role of ACS data in research

ACS data are vital to research ranging from economics and social science to the study of infectious diseases.

“Census data are essential for research to understand our community,” says Jie Wu, the director of research management at the Kinder Institute. “We use information from the decennial censuses to control our analysis and research results for demographic variables. And undercounts affect results of much social science research. For example, like other sample surveys, the responses from the annual Kinder Houston Area Survey are weighted using the census data for variations in the likelihood of selection and to align the samples more closely with the actual population demographics.”

The data are used in computational methods such as agent-based modeling to help experts understand how infectious diseases like COVID-19, SARS, swine flu and others spread across communities and to protect people from the economic and health impacts of these diseases.

“We want to know the impact of a disease at a very granular level in order to anticipate what the economic consequences are, what the consequences are for our health, what the consequences are for our schools, our children, our elderly and so on,” the National Institutes of Health’s Dr. Irene Eckstrand explained in this video about the use of census data in preparing for pandemics.

Agent-based models, which work on the micro-level, simulate every person in every household in a study area to generate synthetic populations.

“Synthetic populations are geographically specific data that represent each household and person in the U.S.,” according to Bill Wheaton, the former director of geospatial science and technology at RTI International. “There really is no other data set in the U.S. that provides both the level of detail and the timeliness that the ACS provides.”

“We need to know how households work,” Eckstrand said. “We need to know all of these details about people and about communities in order to understand how diseases spread. That’s why the American Community Survey is so important to us.”

It’s an issue of equity

As a minority-majority city, Houston is particularly high-risk for an undercount. It has a large population of vulnerable residents such as renters (57%), those with no internet access (21%), persons living in poverty (19%), noncitizens (19%), residents with limited English proficiency (13%), young adults (10%) and children under 5 years old (8%).

If only 1% of Houstonians do not respond to the census, it will jeopardize an estimated $250 Million in federally administered dollars. For each person not listed on the 2020 Census, $1,000 each year, or $10,000 over the next 10-year period, per resident is lost.

“So, census coverage errors — undercounts and omissions — are not just a data problem but also a social equity problem,” says Wu.



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