Morris: The Census Quandary
by Leo Morris
The census-citizenship-question sideshow seems to have ended, and thank goodness. Now, we can concentrate on what is really important about our decennial body count.
That’s not to say citizenship – particularly the illegal-immigrant component – is not an important issue. It is, but the federal government has ducked it for decades. If a solution were desired, one could have been found, especially during periods of one-party monopoly in Washington, such as in President Obama’s first two years and a mere heartbeat ago during President Trump’s first two years.
And, as the Stoics might have said, if there is no solution, there is no problem. The whole citizenship controversy has been just another excuse for political posturing, which has gone from habit to obsession in the Trump era.
Meanwhile, we’re still pretending that the primary purpose of the census remains what it was at the country’s founding, a way to ensure that all people in our representative democracy are fairly represented. As states gain or lose population, they are to gain or lose members of the House.
That lasted until roughly the start of the Progressive Era – thank you, Teddy Roosevelt – when it was decided that the government should take a more active role in curing the country’s ills. “More active role” means, of course, collecting and distributing more money.
So today the most important thing the census determines is not who we send to Washington, but what we get from Washington.
According to Tracy Gordon of the Tax Policy Center, the 2020 population count will affect roughly $900 billion in federal spending, ranging from Medicaid assistance funds to Section 8 housing vouchers.
It was a mere $185 billion for the 2000 census that caused even the liberal Slate magazine to complain that “distributing goodies is now all the government does.” The government “has become a mechanism for distributing largess, and your census form is your ticket.”
Don’t worry about Indiana not getting its rightful slice of the pie – Hoosier politicians are paying attention. Nearly $18 billion is on the line for Indiana in the census – roughly $2,710 per person, reports the Indianapolis Business Journal. And the fewer people counted, the less money allocated to Indiana’s 6.7 million residents.
“The challenge is, if we don’t get everybody counted in Indiana, that’s never good for us,” said Carol Rogers, deputy director of the Indiana Business Research Center and the governor’s liaison to the census. “Let’s get our fair share back from Washington. Let’s make sure we get our fair share of congressional seats.”
Oh, yeah. Those congressional seats. Kind of an afterthought, but at least she hasn’t forgotten them entirely.
Some communities are even going above and beyond.
The Economic Development Coalition of Southwest Indiana (EDC), we are told by the Courier & Press, is working to persuade the federal government to enlarge the Evansville metropolitan statistical area. The current Evansville MSA includes Vanderburgh, Warrick and Posey counties in Indiana and Henderson County in Kentucky. The EDC wants to enlarge it to include Gibson County, the region’s second-largest employment center, and Wabash County in Illinois.
The bigger the MSA, you see, the more federal dollars. I wouldn’t be surprised to wake up one morning and find Fort Wayne is part of the Indianapolis MSA, with a few Ohio and Michigan counties thrown in for good measure.
Now that I think about it, perhaps I was too hasty in dismissing the illegal-immigrant matter out of hand. Federal funds are allocated not based on the number of citizens but on the number of warm bodies. If anything, Indiana does not have its fair share of those folks.
So, we should definitely ask that on the census. But what if that makes them afraid to reveal themselves and there is a terrible undercount? I’m so confused.
I should run for Congress.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.