Rural and poor states depend on the Census the most, new report shows

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By Tim Henderson

West Virginia, Mississippi and Kentucky rely the most on census population counts for federal funding, according to a George Washington University study released Monday. That’s because they have more high-poverty and rural areas that tend to get the most funding.

The Counting for Dollars 2020 project’s study shows that states have more at stake than just congressional representation, said Mary Jo Hoeksema, co-director of the Census Project, a private-public partnership that saw the study in advance.

“Families in need, rural areas and those especially dependent on government health care programs are at risk of losing federal support if their states don’t have a good count,” she said. For most people, the 2020 count will start with a postcard in March with instructions on how to be counted.

Census-guided federal funding made up almost 17% of personal income in West Virginia in 2017, the year covered by the study, and more than 12% in Mississippi, Kentucky, Arkansas, New Mexico, Louisiana, Vermont, Delaware, Maine and Montana, the study found. The study used a ratio of funding to income as an indicator of how much the states depend on federal funds.

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The largest amount of the federal money, in states and nationally, comes from Medicare, the federal health insurance program for the elderly. Medicare makes up about 4% of personal income nationwide but about 8% in West Virginia and Mississippi.

Compared with high-poverty and rural states, federal funds made up about 7% or less of personal income in more prosperous, faster-growing states such as Colorado, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Connecticut.

As a raw total, the largest states got the largest parts of the $1.5 trillion in 2017 federal funds guided by census counts.

(Source: The Counting For Dollars Project 2020)

They are California, $171.9 billion; followed by New York, $121.7 billion; and Texas, $101.6 billion. California and New York have launched census awareness campaigns with tens of millions of dollars in state funding, while Texas has had only a roundtable discussion on census coordination.

“A large part of each state’s economy depends on census-guided federal spending,” said Andrew Reamer, the GWU research professor who headed the study, in a statement. “Each state should keep in mind that the federal funds they lose due to undercounting don’t go back to the U.S. Treasury. They get redistributed, essentially as a gift to all the other states.”

Tim Henderson is a reporter for Stateline.org, where this story first appeared.