Understanding US Census Results

Posted April 26, 2011 in Current Events by

In recent weeks, the US Census Bureau has been releasing data from the nationwide survey it conducted last year. Many Americans may view the census as nothing more than a decennial curiosity, but it actually has a tremendous impact on all of us.

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According to the US Census Bureau, results are used to:

  • Determine number of seats in the US House of Representatives
  • Allocate more than $400 billion in federal funding to local projects, such as schools, roads, hospitals and job training centers
  • Help bolster support for communities initiatives

Congressional Seats

There are currently 435 members of the US House of Representatives. Each state is guaranteed at least one representative, but seats are otherwise distributed – or apportioned – based on the relative population of each state.

California, for example, has the most seats (53 total) because it has the biggest population in the country. The states with the smallest populations – including Alaska, Delaware and North Dakota – each only have one representative.

As a result of the 2010 census, eight states will gain seats in the US House of Representatives and 10 states will lose seats. New York and Ohio, for example, each lose two seats while Texas is gaining four seats. These changes go into effect with the 2012 election.


One of the more high-profile uses of the census results is what is known as redistricting.

Every person in the country is assigned to a Congressional and legislative district based on where you live. These districts are created at the statewide level, but also have to conform to certain federal requirements, too. Ideally, each district is of a similar size, is compact and keeps a community intact.

After each census, states will reexamine their districts and adjust the borders, if necessary, to take into account population shifts. Suppose, for example, that a major manufacturer has moved into a rural area, bringing with it new jobs and leading to major residential development. Or – as many cities are doing – dense housing projects are torn down, replaced with business and single-family homes. Both of these population changes would be reflected in the new census and may lead to redistricting.

Redistricting is controversial because – in some states – the state legislature is responsible for redrawing district lines. It’s not surprising, then, that some politicians try to game the process by redrawing political boundaries in a way that will favor them at election time.

Because, of course, the census tells us not just where the people are living, but the demographics of each block with pinpoint precision. If you’re a politician who appeals to middle-class Hispanic voters, for example, maybe you try to get your district’s line moved to include a street with a high proportion of Hispanic residents.

When electoral districts are redrawn in an effort to gain political advantage, the process is known as gerrymandering.

Allocate Money for Projects

One reason that cities and states strongly encourage their residents to participate in the census is because the results financially benefit state and local governments.

According to the Brookings Institute, in 2008, Census data was used to distribute funds for 215 federal programs, and the average distribution was about $1,469 per person. As Americans, we directly and indirectly benefit from that money. For example, some of it may have been spent on road improvement projects, giving each of us a smoother ride on our daily commutes. State Medicaid programs receive about 58% of all money that’s distributed as a result of census results.

It’s not just a state’s population that determines how much a state receives in census-related funding. The state’s demographics and the particulars of its Medicaid reimbursement policies are also big factors. Washington, D.C., for example, receives an average of $4,656 per person from census-guided funding, while Nevada receives only $742.

If you have some time, take a look around the US Census website for more interesting facts and figures about who we are and where we live.

Related Apps for Your Smartphone*

Populus USA – Uses census data to provide population snapshots. $4.99.

*Please note that these apps are for informational purposes only, and neither LexisNexis nor Lawyers.com endorses these apps or accepts liability for their use.

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