By Cassie Miller
For the Pittsburgh Current
Understanding what the 2020 Census is and how it works is only half the battle. Many people know that the census determines the state’s representation in Congress, but how else can the census help or hinder Pennsylvania?
Here’s a quick primer:
Through the U.S. Census count, Pennsylvania receives $26.8 billion annually for federally funded programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That amounts to about $2,000 per-Pennsylvanian, per-year.
But flip that statistic – that amounts to a loss of about $2,000 a year for every Pennsylvanian who isn’t counted. And suddenly the urgency behind state officials’ push for census participation makes a lot more sense.
Department of Labor and Industry Secretary Gerard Oleksiak put it best at a Capitol census kickoff rally earlier this week: “Not counting just 1,000 Pennsylvanians could result in the loss of $2 million in federal funding,” he said.
Oleksiak described the importance of participation in the census as “just like voting,” he said. “It’s our civic duty to participate.”
Here’s what that federal funding looks like across various state programs:
Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said several of the agency’s programs could be affected by the outcome of the census count.
“The Department of Human Services administers many of the critical programs to families that are funded according to Pennsylvania’s Census count, and we simply cannot afford to jeopardize that funding or those programs,” Miller said. “For the health and safety of our residents, for the health and safety of our communities, this funding must be preserved; and to do that, everyone must be counted.”
DHS currently receives more than $365 million in federal funding allocated to the Children’s Health Insurance Program or CHIP, but Miller told a crowded Capitol rotunda this week that other programs, such as Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which isalready facing cuts from the federal government, and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program or LIHEAP could all feel the effects of the census count.
Schools are also feeling the heat ahead of the 2020 headcount. Census data in school districts is used to determine lunch prices through the National School Lunch Program, Jennifer Braxton, media specialist for the Census Bureau in Philadelphia said.
Census funding also feeds Pennsylvania’s education assistance programs. That includes more than $5 billion for Federal Direct student loans, $840 million for the Federal Pell Grant program, $567 million in Title I grants for schools, and $436 million in special education grants, according to the NCSL.
One thing all Pennsylvanians can agree on is that the Keystone state’s roads are in direneed of repair.
And you guessed it, the census affects that, too.
In 2015, the state received more than $1.68 billion in funding authorized by the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, the largest portion of it designated for maintenance of national highways and construction and repair of bridges and other highway facilities.
If the 2020 census count isn’t accurate, it could mean less funding for badly needed road repairs.
But infrastructure is more than just roadways — it also includes everything from public works like waste and water treatment to electricity and housing.
Rural communities are especially vulnerable to changes in infrastructure funding. Federally funded Rural Electrification Loans total $18 million in Pennsylvania. The state’s water and waste disposal systems for rural communities total nearly $55 million, according to NCSL data.
Community Development Block Grants, a program run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which constructs affordable housing and public facilities, supplies more than $196 million in funding to communities across the commonwealth, according to NCSL reports.
Annual funds for the CDBG program is allocated by statistical data including population and “community need.”
According to the HUD website, the program is available to “metropolitan cities with populations of at least 50,000; and qualified urban counties with a population of 200,000 or more.”
The site outlines other qualifying criteria, “the extent of poverty, population, housing overcrowding, age of housing, and population growth lag in relationship to other metropolitan areas.”
Most of the answers to these questions can be found via census counts, which means any inaccuracy could cost a community their anticipated grant funding.
State officials say they know that to get an accurate count and hopefully, retain its funding and representation, Pennsylvania will need to spend some money on outreach and awareness.
In late 2018, Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order establishing the Pennsylvania Complete Count Commission to run the state’s census efforts.
Wolf and the commission were hopeful that state funding for census initiatives would land at or around the $12 million mark, however the state’s $34 billion budget approved last June did not include funds for 2020 census efforts.
Instead, state legislators pushed the issue of funding the census off on those in Washington D.C.
Mike Straub, spokesperson for House Republicans, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that, “The census is really a federal project, a federal initiative … it’s something they’re going to have to grapple with in Washington.”
Last October, some state funds were allocated to bolstering census outreach when Wolf signed off on $4 million toward census efforts.
While the commission was hoping for more money, a representative for the group said this week that the 27-member panel is “making the most of it.”