Today is Census Day. Yes, it's also April Fool's Day (whose bright idea was that?), but the 2010 Census count is serious business.
Why? For one, the economy. Communities simply can't afford not to be counted in the 2010 Census -- especially in the wake of the Great Recession.
As the Census Bureau has taken pains to point out, each year over $400 billion from 215 federal programs flows to states based on Census data. That's money that goes to roads, schools, hospitals and other critical community needs.
This is especially important to areas still reeling from lost jobs, shuttered homes and lost tax revenue from the economic downturn. Losing their fair share of federal funds would plunge local budgets deeper into the red and make a tough economic situation even worse.
And like voting, every person counts. Think that you're just one person, and it doesn't matter if you don't get your Census form back in the mail? Think again: A recent study by the Brookings Institution found that, for every person not counted in the Census, states stand to lose up to $1,000 in Medicaid funding alone.
A VICIOUS CYCLE? The Economy and the Census
Unfortunately, the bad economy also puts areas at higher risk of being undercounted in the Census. Looking at North Carolina as a case study, the Institute for Southern Studies released a study this week revealing how job losses, home foreclosures and other economic dislocation puts hard-hit N.C. counties at risk of not being fully counted in 2010.
North Carolina -- already struggling from massive job losses in manufacturing earlier this decade -- has been hammered by the recession. Twenty-eight counties have unemployment rates of 13 percent or higher. Plant closings have wiped out up to one out of 10 jobs in some counties.
And while the housing crisis hasn't hit N.C. like California or Florida, the state's been far from immune. Home foreclosures rose 136 percent between January 2009 and January 2010. Over a third of North Carolina counties have seen 10 percent or more houses go under since 2005.
This economic upheaval poses a big risk to the 2010 Census count. Years of research by Census experts have shown that dislocation makes an area much more likely to not be fully counted.
The most obvious example is home foreclosures. In North Carolina, 5 percent or more of homes are vacant in over a third of the state's Census tracts. Census forms mailed to those houses likely won't reach anyone, and Census outreach staff will have a hard time finding them, too.
But vacant homes aren't the only way the economic woes can hurt the Census count. Laid off workers may suddenly move to a cheaper house or find a new job, making them harder for the Census to find. Job losses and poverty can lead to homelessness or moving in with family members -- both of which, Census data shows, increase a person's risk of not being counted.
It's a vicious cycle: Communities struggling the most from job losses and lost homes are at greatest risk of not getting counted by the Census -- putting our most vulnerable residents in danger of losing the funding and programs they need.
REPRESENT! The Census and Politics
The 2010 Census count is important for another reason: politics. After the 2010 Census data is collected, Washington will send the data back to the states, who will then use the information to redraw political lines -- and determine how you get represented.
At the federal level, Census data will be used for reapportionment: deciding which states gain, and which states lose, Congressional seats and Electoral College votes for president.
Right now, Southern states are projected to pick up six Congressional seats: three in Texas, and one each in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
That's the biggest gain of any region in the country: Western states are likely to pick up four Congressional seats. The Northeast is projected to lose four, and the Midwest five -- part of a decades-long shift of political power to the South and West.
At the state level, the 2010 Census count will be used for redistricting: the drawing of new political lines that determine how you will be represented.
As the Brennan Center points out in its excellent guide to redistricting, in most states -- and all but one in the South -- the battles in drawing those lines are fought out in the state legislature by whoever is in office in 2011 (another reason the 2010 elections are so important).
And as anyone who remembers the 2003 Texas battle, when Democratic lawmakers fled the state and holed up in an Oklahoma hotel to protest what they charged was a Republican power grab, the struggles to redraw political lines can get pretty intense.
The stakes are even higher in Southern states, where legal challenges to the Voting Rights Act have thrown questions of racial equity and representation into the center of the redistricting debate.
WILL EVERYONE GET COUNTED?
Fortunately, a network of government, faith and civic groups has stepped up efforts to make sure everyone gets counted. The Census has rolled out a major advertising campaign, including the much-discussed $340 million Super Bowl ad.
Grassroots groups are using even more innovative approaches: In Wake County, North Carolina, African-American ministers were deputized as "Soul Census Ambassadors" to reach out to "Hard-to-Count" populations.
So far, the Census is reporting a 52 percent "mail participation" rate nationally. That's a new statistic the Census created for 2010 that takes out the bad addresses caused by the housing crisis.
Upper Midwest states are firmly in the lead, with "participation" rates of 60 percent or more. Deep South states are lagging behind the national average.
As households continue to mail back their forms, the Census will be dispatching armies of outreach workers to catch those who haven't yet replied. It will be a massive undertaking, complicated by a dismal economy and political hysteria.
But the message to residents and communities is clear: In 2010, getting counted is more important than ever.