Expert Commentary

Interactive graphics show how the 2020 census guides federal program funding in each state

To help journalists understand how the 2020 census will affect each state’s share of federal dollars, we’ve visualized fiscal year 2017 data for 40 of the largest census-guided programs.

abacus census count
(Crissy Jarvis on Unsplash)

The 2020 decennial census will be crucial in helping direct the distribution of some $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding for programs like MedicareMedicaidHead StartTitle I  and the National School Lunch Program. Federal officials use census data in two broad ways: to determine individual and organizational eligibility for these programs, and 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 journalists understand how the 2020 census will affect each state’s share of federal dollars, we’ve visualized fiscal year 2017 data for 40 of the largest census-guided programs. These maps and tables are based largely on the work of Andrew Reamer, who is studying the census’ role in the distribution of federal funds at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy with a project called Counting for Dollars. 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. 

We also incorporated data from the Federal Funds Information for States, a Washington-based, for-profit organization that provides research and analysis on federal spending, which Reamer has used for state-level data calculations in the past.

Reamer stresses that the decennial census itself does not determine federal funding. Rather, data derived from the 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.

Medicare and Medicaid are the largest census-guided federal programs. About two-thirds of the $1.5 trillion in federal money distributed in FY2017 went toward these two programs.

Interactive maps and tables

The following map and sortable table show how 40 of the largest census-guided programs are apportioned by state. (The “other programs” category comprises more than 250 smaller census-guided programs tracked by the Counting for Dollars project.) We encourage you to use the embed code provided to share these interactive graphics on your own website.

Choose a program for a state-level breakdown of funding by:

1) Total funding

2) Funding per capita (calculated using state population numbers from the American Community Survey 2017)

3) Funding as a percentage of the combined personal income of the state’s residents (calculated using 2017 income figures from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis)

Per capita and percentage of income ratios help illustrate, albeit roughly, how much one state gets compared with others. It’s important to note that per capita is not the most meaningful figure to illustrate funding distributions for certain programs. That’s because some of these federal programs are designed for certain subsets of the population — for example, Title I grants for schools are based specifically on the number of low-income children living in the school district.

The percentage of income ratio provides a rough estimate of a state’s reliance on census-guided federal dollars, dividing the total amount of federal funding a state received by the total combined personal income of people living in that state. “By state, dependence on census-guided spending varies substantially,” Reamer explains on the Counting for Dollars website. “West Virginia relies more on census-guided funding (16.6% of personal) than any other state, followed by Mississippi (16.4%). Colorado and Utah have the lowest dependence (6.3% and 6.7%, respectively).”

These three estimates of a state’s dependence on federal funding are important in the context of the 2020 census — they rely on an accurate headcount, Reamer tells Journalist’s Resource. “The poorer states have a greater incentive than the richer states to have an accurate census because of their economy’s higher dependence on census-guided funding,” he says. “The economic consequences of an undercount are greater in Mississippi than they are in Minnesota.”

Context matters

Mallory Bateman, a senior research analyst who chairs  the 2020 Census Technical Advisory Committee at the University of Utah’s Gardner Policy Institute, tells JR that it’s important to consider these estimates of federal allocation to states as complementary to the funding allocated by state governments and local municipalities. She notes that state and local governments also use decennial census data to decide how to spend public dollars.

“If journalists are looking at these numbers within the context of their communities, it might also be worthwhile to dig into state or regional funding programs to gain a broader understanding of how far-reaching the decennial census counts are,” says Bateman, who also serves on the Utah State Complete Count Committee.

Choose your state below for a treemap depicting its share of census-guided funding. Hover over any given program to reveal its corresponding FY2017 funding.

Choose your state below for a sortable table of 40 census-guided federal programs, with hyperlinks to web pages that explain those programs:

For more on the impact of the 2020 census, check out our interactive treemap illustrating the national distribution of funding for more than 300 federal programs. 

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