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Ever wonder why so much attention is paid to the Census every ten years? Or why every decade the number of members in the House of Representatives for each state potentially changes? The answer is the United States Constitution mandates that every ten years the government conduct a population count of the country. Afterwards that statistical information is used, amongst other things, to reapportion the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, and determine how much funding cities and states receive from the federal government.   

So why does the B’nai B’rith Center for Senior Services care about the Census? As the 2020 Census approaches there is a high-risk that seniors could be undercounted. For example, this is the first Census where the government intends for most people to be counted through the internet, with the Census Bureau’s goal of encouraging 80 percent of the population to respond through this medium. However, as many people are aware, seniors are less likely to use the internet. For instance, only 62 percent of seniors use the internet, consequently leaving about 18 million seniors who do not have familiarity to the Census Bureau’s preferred method of surveying people. To put 18 million people in perspective, only four states have populations that exceed 18 million. To make matters worse, the number of low-income seniors (less than 30,-000) who use the internet is 46 percent meaning more than half of these individuals do not use the internet.  

While the Census plans to provide paper forms to neighborhoods with older-adult populations, the Bureau’s budget being terribly underfunded is a cause for major concern. The Bureau requested about $15.6 billion in funding for the 2020 Census, however, Congress only wants to spend $12.5 billion. Congress’ budget for the upcoming Census is the same amount of funding as what it cost to run the 2010 Census. Despite the use of technology, I don’t know how Congress can reasonably expect the Census to be conducted at the same price in 2020 that it cost in 2010, without adjusting for inflation. Consequently, the Bureau has unfortunately been forced to cut corners by canceling plans to test local outreach and messaging approaches that encourage people to participate in the Census. If there is potentially less money for advertising and education, seniors who are not internet savvy could be woefully neglected.

Problems like this have caused the Government Accountability Office, to label the 2020 Census as one of the federal government’s programs at a “High Risk” of failure!  

If seniors are undercounted in the Census, what does that mean for the government programs they have come to rely on?  Every year the federal government sends $600 billion to state and local governments for health programs like Medicaid, which are based on formulas which derive their numbers from the Census. If the Census is inaccurate, cities and states will not get the appropriate amount of funding they need to serve their populations. Furthermore, data from the Census is used to determine the number of seniors which live in a given community and the services they need to live independently, as mandated by the Older Americans Act. Kenneth Prewitt, former director of the Census Bureau explained the negative results of an inaccurate Census, “The consequences of not reaching that goal are substantial. The Veteran’s Administration wants to put a new hospital where it can serve elderly veterans. To do so, it needs measures of age and of veteran status that are accurate. A significant undercount puts the hospital in the wrong town. A poor-quality census means policies that miss their mark.”

The Census’ long term influence on important government programs that impact seniors is undeniable — therefore our country should take every step possible to ensure its accuracy. Fully funding the Census at $15.6 billion is a small fraction of the federal government’s budget, making it a smart financial investment for policy that has enormous consequences on all Americans. 


Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Assistant Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School.  Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.