Expert Commentary

How the 2020 census will guide the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal funding

To help you appreciate and explain how the 2020 census will affect federal programs on the national level, we created an interactive visualization tool.

hundred dollar bills
(Pepi Stojanovski, Unsplash)

The 2020 United States census will be crucial in directing the distribution of some $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding for programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Title I  and the National School Lunch Program. Census data is used by these programs in two broad ways: to determine individual and organizational eligibility for these programs and/or to apportion funding. 

Journalist’s Resource is publishing a series of shareable data visualizations and data sets designed to help you better understand the broad reach of the census at the national, state, regional and program level — and to help you better understand the importance of an accurate headcount.

To help you appreciate how the 2020 census will affect federal programs on the national level, we created an interactive visualization tool using fiscal year 2017 data prepared by Andrew Reamer, a research professor at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy, who leads the project “Counting for Dollars 2020: The Role of the Decennial Census in the Geographic Distribution of Federal Funds.” Data from 2017, guided by 2010 decennial census data, is the most recent available, explains Reamer. “It takes time for the government to obtain and publish the latest year for every program,” he tells Journalist’s Resource. In any case, he says, the distribution numbers for 2018 and 2019 are also guided by 2010 decennial census data and are not likely to change much from year to year. 

Reamer stresses that the decennial census itself does not determine federal funding. Rather, data derived from the decennial census helps create other data sets, and those are used to determine how the federal government will distribute money to states and local governments as well as individual households and organizations. He favors the term “census-guided” funding. 

This national picture includes more than 300 census-guided federal financial assistance programs administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Labor, among others. Medicare and Medicaid represent the lion’s share of census-guided federal programs.

We chose a treemap visualization in order to communicate and compare the size of funding going to each federal program annually. Each block represents a program and is nested with other programs administered by the same federal department. Hover over any given program to reveal its corresponding FY2017 funding. And please feel free to use the embed code provided to republish the treemap on your own website. 


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