Community, Features

Once in a decade: purpose and impacts of the US census

The 2020 census has closed, and the demographic data collected this year will shape the landscape of political representation in the country for another decade.

The importance of the Census remains despite the 2020 Census having closed already. ILLUSTRATION BY HANNAH YOSHINAGA | DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

The census, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau every 10 years, counts all residents in the United States. It primarily works to manage existing congressional districts and to understand demographic information.

Maxwell Palmer, an assistant professor of political science at Boston University, said the census informs apportionment — the determination of the number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives — and attempts to ensure districts have equal population and sorting.

Each state has at least one House seat, with 435 total seats in the chamber. Palmer the distribution may change: states whose populations grow faster are likely to earn more seats, while those whose growth remain stagnant might lose seats.

The redrawing principle, which changes the geographical areas represented by a particular legislative district, ensures the population of different districts is weighted, and therefore represented, equally, Palmer said.

This year’s census was completed by Oct. 15, and states will receive redistricting counts by April 1 of next year.

When it comes to Tuesday’s election, Palmer said, the census had little effect.

“The 2020 Census doesn’t really impact this election, because it affects the districts and apportionment in the next election,” Palmer said. “This election is affected by the 2010 Census for the apportionment of congressional seats then.”

The census is also meant to help the federal government distribute funding to services such as public education and other government programs. Because it determines where money is mostly needed, Palmer said, if the census is undercounted in a certain district or a state, less funding, and thus services, will be offered to residents.

Megan Lau, a sophomore in BU’s College of General Studies, worked at California Rep. Judy Chu’s office during her gap semester in 2019, where she said she worked on census awareness.

Lau said during this time of political polarization, filling out the census is one action people can take to make their voices heard.

“It’s your right as a citizen of the U.S.,” Lau said, “and I think that you should extend that so that you can be a part of a political decision-making, even if it starts out at the local and state level.”

Thomas Silver, a sophomore in BU’s College of Arts and Sciences, worked as a census enumerator this fall, meaning he went door-to-door collecting census data, typically in communities where citizens had yet to fill out the census.

Silver applied for the position in March and began working in August at home in New York, then continued to work in Boston upon returning to campus. He said collecting census data is important because it directly impacts communities for a long time.

“There’s so much decision-making that happens based on census data,” Silver said. “Officials look at data about people’s ages, races, how population has changed, in what parts of the country since the last census, and use that for a lot of policy decisions.”

Palmer said although there will likely be litigation over the results of the 2020 Census — concerning undocumented immigrants especially — once those issues are resolved, people will forget about the census again until 2029.

Lau said introducing the process of the census and helping younger Americans understand how it works may help bring clarity to the government system and ensure people take it seriously.

“I think that if you start with trying to spread that civil engagement and outreach among 16, 17, 18 year olds, that may prove to be beneficial,” Lau said, “because it’s our future, and we want to be living in a future that looks at our best interests.”

Undocumented immigrants, a population heavily impacted by these policies, should be taught about the census before they attain their citizenship, Lau said, because community funding is greatly determined by demographics.

“By not reporting yourself if you’re in this type of vulnerable or targeted community, I think that can be very detrimental to the resources that are available to you,” Lau said. “It’s a ripple effect for generations and generations, which I think we’ve seen in some communities that have lower recorded census numbers.”

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