How the Census Affects Your Daily Life, From COVID-19 Relief To Your Child’s Education

census form
Wednesday marks Census Day, when households are asked to fill out the census according to where residents live as of April 1. The count affects how power and money are distributed throughout the U.S. John Raoux / Associated Press
census form
Wednesday marks Census Day, when households are asked to fill out the census according to where residents live as of April 1. The count affects how power and money are distributed throughout the U.S. John Raoux / Associated Press

How the Census Affects Your Daily Life, From COVID-19 Relief To Your Child’s Education

While the 2020 census has been underway for weeks now, Wednesday still marks Census Day in the United States. Households are asked to fill out the census according to where residents live as of April 1.

With the COVID-19 crisis deepening throughout the country, the U.S. Census Bureau has adjusted its operations and deadlines to count every resident in the United States.

Currently, just under 40% of Illinois households have filled out the census, mostly online. That’s higher than the 37% nationwide figure, but still far short of the robust count the state is seeking.

The census determines congressional apportionment and federal funding. In other words: The decennial count affects how power and money are distributed throughout the U.S.

In Illinois, this year’s count is especially important because the state stands to lose up to two congressional seats and billions of federal dollars for Medicaid, food stamps, roads, bridges and education.

But there are other reasons to fill out the census form — many of which most people are not aware.

When residents fill out the questionnaire, they become part of a basic population count that calibrates a number of surveys and datasets that the census bureau produces. Those numbers are used by countless individuals and organizations in both the public and private sectors.

Here are three ways the census affects your life that you may not have thought about.

FEMA cots
Cots provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) line the basketball court at a makeshift medical facility in a gym at Southern New Hampshire Univesrity in Manchester, N.H. FEMA, the lead agency for the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, relies on numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau to assist with its relief and recovery efforts. Charles Krupa / Associated Press

During the federal response to national emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic

Census Bureau spokesman Michael Cook said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) relies heavily on census data to “determine exactly where people are and where they live when they’re trying to determine what that response should look like.”

FEMA and other agencies like it also use census data to dole out funding for recovery efforts, according to Andrew Reamer, a research professor at George Washington University, who studies how the census affects funding for hundreds of federal programs.

“If you want your community to get its fair share of funds and recover from an economic disaster, it’s important to fill out the census,” Reamer said.

With the COVID-19 pandemic also being a public health crisis, Reamer pointed out, an accurate census count will be crucial for public health officials going forward. An inaccurate census could limit their ability to understand the spread of the virus and what groups were most affected by it. That means they could have a harder time researching ways to stop future viruses from spreading, Reamer said.

Lupe Tapia and her son Anthony
Lupe Tapia, left, is pictured with her son, Anthony, on Jan. 28 in their home in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood. Anthony, who was diagnosed with autism when he was a baby, is nonverbal and uses a tablet to communicate with his parents. Funding for his special education — and dozens of other programs — relies on data from the census. Esther Yoon-Ji Kang / WBEZ News

For education — in everything from school lunches to student loans

Census data is also used to dole out funds for numerous federal education grants — for special ed programs, school lunches, assistance to high-poverty schools and student loans.

Census data is key to funding the myriad programs and services students receive across the United States, said Doug Geverdt, director of the Education Demographic and Geographic Estimates program at the National Center for Education Statistics, a part of the U.S. Department of Education.

“If data is a stream, the decennial census is … where the water comes out of the rock,” Geverdt said.

The census is especially critical for a particular demographic: families with young children. “That information that you provide gets trickled down throughout the rest of the decade,” Geverdt said.

He pointed out that, if there is an undercount of children, they could miss out on crucial services for the next 10 years — a large chunk of one’s childhood.

Furthermore, Geverdt said, data from the census bureau is used by researchers, nonprofits, foundations and other groups to create programs and resources for children.

Alex Esparza with the Economic Strategies Development Corporation
Alex Esparza, pictured here on March 10, leads the Economic Strategies Development Corporation, a group that helps businesses in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood grow and thrive. Data from the census bureau helps individuals, corporations and chambers of commerce make business decisions every day. Esther Yoon-Ji Kang / WBEZ News

In business — mom-and-pop shops, corporations and everything in between

Businesses at every level — from mom-and-pop shops to large corporations — use census data to make important decisions every day, said Andrew Hait, an economist with the U.S. Census Bureau. That includes everything from where to open or expand a business, what types of products and services to offer based on the neighborhood’s demographics and even how much to pay employees.

The decennial census is the first step for all the data collection the bureau performs, Hait said. “In the end, almost every one of our programs at the Census Bureau is, in some way, shape, or form, baseline or benchmark, related back to that population census.”

The U.S. Census Bureau even makes an online tool called the Census Buseiness Builder, which can offer data about market potential for certain businesses and broad portraits of the residents and existing businesses in a preferred service area.

Hait said it’s not just individuals and companies who use the tool. Chambers of commerce and economic development groups also take advantage of the data to attract new businesses to their neighborhoods.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.