Dollars and Census

The national head count is about more than people-it's also about federal money and power.

The decennial census, our national head count, might seem like the most apolitical of exercises. Over time, though, it has emerged as anything but-there's simply too much federal money and power at stake. Among other things, census data determines how many congressional seats are apportioned to each state. It affects how those districts are drawn, and it shapes federal funding to states and municipalities. Understandably, then, the politicking over the 2010 census is well under way.

Some of the census-related skirmishes are almost too esoteric to warrant much attention. They deal with things such as what should be asked on the questionnaires, the inclusion or elimination of certain surveys or the vagaries of place designations. How long should the census form be? Should the minimum population threshold be lowered? Should there be a special census designation for places such as Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley? Is it still worth asking a question about foster children when past response has been spotty and another federal agency tracked the same data? The answers to these seemingly arcane questions matter in Washington and in statehouses and city halls across the country, because in the end they translate into dollars and clout-even if they don't attract much notice from the media or average citizens.

Though the census still is three years out, you can bet there are at least two issues that will generate headlines. The first is minority undercounting. This is not new, but it's likely to be affected by the current congressional pecking order. Since Democrats control Congress and most Hispanics and African-Americans in Congress are Democrats, minority undercounting will get increased scrutiny. The congressional Black, Hispanic and Asian caucuses already are working together to address it, and Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the census, has made clear that the undercount is a top priority.

For these lawmakers, the minority undercount has consequences that reach beyond federal aid. Clay, like many other African-American members of Congress, represents a big-city district that is declining in population-St. Louis. His home state is on track to lose a congressional seat after the next census, and the boundaries of his district undoubtedly will be affected in redistricting, perhaps in ways not to his liking.

The other contentious issue concerns the counting of illegal immigrants. Since the Census Bureau does not distinguish between citizens and noncitizens-its constitutional mandate calls for counting all "persons" within U.S. borders-states with large undocumented populations stand to benefit during apportionment of Congress' 435 House seats. According to a University of Connecticut study in September, illegal immigrants will affect the allocation of 12 House seats among 11 states. When these people are counted, the Sun Belt seats of Arizona, Florida and Texas gain seven seats, at the expense of Midwestern and Rust Belt states such as Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New York and Ohio. But under a scenario in which undocumented immigrants are not counted, Arizona, Florida and Texas gain only four seats.

Indeed, if undocumented immigrants aren't counted, the study reports that California would lose two seats, and New York, Ohio and New Jersey would lose one. Illinois, Michigan and Missouri would lose no seats at all.

For that reason, Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., has proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow only citizens to be counted for the congressional apportionment process. "It's one thing if we lose seats simply because of population loss, but it's another thing if we lose this seat because of illegal immigration, and that's exactly what is happening," she said in a statement. "Michigan simply cannot afford to lose another voice at the federal level during these tough economic times."

At a time when illegal immigration is a politically incendiary issue, all of this places the Census Bureau in a precarious situation. In 2000, the bureau worked with immigration officials to scale back efforts to apprehend illegal immigrants during the Census canvass. There's no such agreement as of yet, and it remains to be seen whether such an agreement could be worked out, given the current political environment.

Charles Mahtesian is editor of The Almanac of American Politics.

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