February 28, 2020

A full, fair, and accurate census is a necessary precursor to our nation’s efforts to address poverty and food insecurity. Below is a quick overview of the census, why the census is so critical to addressing hunger, and why anti-hunger advocates need to get involved in census-related activities.

About the Census

The census satisfies the constitutional requirement that every 10 years the federal government conducts a count of all living people in the U.S.

The census asks for basic information about households, such as where the household lives, the number of people in the household, and certain characteristics of household members (race, ethnicity, age). The census does not ask for Social Security numbers or citizenship status. Responses to the census are confidential and secure.

Census Results

Findings from the census are used to determine how billions of dollars — both public and private — are distributed, including funds to address hunger and poverty. Federal, state, and local governments rely on census data to make decisions about allocating hundreds of billions of dollars — including approximately $675 billion federal dollars — for community needs, like schools, hospitals, roads, public works, and other vital programs. An accurate count of the number of people living in an area drives funding allocations.

The census results play a role in deciding funding allocations for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The census count helps federal, state, and local officials plan and evaluate funding for nutrition programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

The private sector also relies on an accurate census count to make informed decisions about where to invest monies, to make critical decisions about where to locate facilities and retail outlets, and to prioritize hiring. Ensuring that the census count is accurate can help communities struggling with hunger bring jobs, grocery stores, and other retail into areas that may get overlooked.

Where these tens of billions of dollars go and how they are distributed has a direct impact on what resources communities have to address hunger and poverty. An undercount of people living in a community means fewer available dollars.

Congressional Seats and the Census

The census’s results are used to determine the number of seats in the House of Representatives each state gets, and are used in state redistricting. Elections are crucial to finding solutions to food insecurity in communities or jurisdictions.

People struggle with hunger for multiple reasons. Families may work multiple jobs but earn too little to make ends meet, face barriers to accessing the federal nutrition programs, or struggle with the effects of systemic racism and discrimination. They may lack access to employment opportunities, affordable housing, high-performing schools, or accessible sources of affordable healthy food.

Undercounted Populations

The Census often misses communities struggling with hunger — a risk we cannot take. The nation’s most vulnerable populations — for example, families with children, African Americans, Latinx people, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, and people living in rural areas and in the South — continue to struggle with disproportionately higher rates of food insecurity than the national average, and often overlap with those groups prone to undercounting by the census. Historically, the census count disproportionately leaves out hard- to- count communities, including people of color, immigrants, young children, low-income people, and rural households.

With the undercounting of groups most at risk of experiencing food insecurity, resources and opportunities that rely on accurate census data may not be distributed equitably or effectively. For example, a young child undercount could result in a state receiving levels of funding for WIC that are too low, thus preventing children from getting needed nutrition for the critical early years of development.

Additionally, the undercounting of young children means states and communities may get less federal funding than they need for other critical programs that play a role in addressing poverty and hunger (e.g., Medicaid, Section 8 Housing Assistance Vouchers, and Head Start).

So, let’s get counting, because a full, fair, and accurate census is vitally important to our efforts to address hunger and poverty.

Take Action

Learn more about the April 1, 2020, Census Day (Households should ideally respond to the census on or before this date.)