BOSTON -- With political clout in Washington D.C. and billions of dollars in federal funding at stake, more than two-dozen states are plunking down unprecedented sums on outreach and preparations for the 2020 Census.

At least 27 states have spent or committed more than $316 million for the effort, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Massachusetts, for example, has earmarked at least $6.25 million this year — the seventh largest amount among all states. It is pegging $3.5 million for grants to community groups and local governments to do public outreach, as well as $2.75 million for technical assistance and post-census work.

"This is the first time in Massachusetts and other states when an enormous amount of money is being devoted to get a full count," said Eva Millona, who leads the state's Complete Count Committee, which is coordinating the outreach. "It's extremely important that we make these investments, because the Census is about power, money and respect."

Much of the money is going to cities, towns and community organizations with stronger ties with hard-to-count populations such as low-income residents, immigrants, transient college students, the elderly and indigenous peoples, she said.

Millona, who is also director of the the state’s Immigrant Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said the outreach is aimed at making sure everyone is counted — a task complicated by misconceptions that the data will misused as well as fears of the federal government in many immigrant communities.

Ten years ago, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates more than 1 in 5 people in Massachusetts did not self-respond to the 2010 census.

Big outreach

Spending on census outreach is greater in more populous states such as Illinois and New York.

California is spending more than any other — $187 million — and sending workers to knock on doors as part of a mini-census ahead of the nationwide count. 

Illinois plans to spend $84.5 million, while New York is pledging $20 million. New York City, the nation's most populous city, recently committed to spending $40 million of its own on census preparations. 

Texas, New Hampshire and Maine, by comparison, are among about 20 states that haven't allocated any money for census outreach. 

For many states, the money toward census education is a significant jump from past decades, including 10 years ago, when the recession restricted state budgets. While the U.S. Census Bureau spends $500 million on education and outreach, it provides no direct funding to state efforts.

The constitutionally mandated census is required to count the country's entire population every 10 years. It asks questions about race, marital status and other topics.

But there's much more at stake than vital statistics.

Census data determine funding formulas for the next decade for federal spending on infrastructure, healthcare, education and affordable housing.

More than $1.5 trillion in funding for state and local governments is parceled out according to census data, according to Andrew Reamer, a professor and researcher at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy, who is studying the census’ role in the distribution of federal funds.

Medicare accounted for almost half of the funding, more than $710 billion, according to the research.

Reamer said the sizable expenditures are a safe bet for the states that make them, given the amount of federal funding on the table.

"From a taxpayer perspective, the return on that investment could be multiple times what they are spending," he said. "They stand to get a lot in return." 

The census also determines how many congressional seats each state gets. Numbers could increase or decrease, depending on the count.

Nonprofit push

States that don't devote money to census preparation risk under-counting their population, and could risk losing federal dollars to other states.

In New Hampshire, which received more than $3.7 billion in federal funds in fiscal 2016 based on census data, census education is being supported by nonprofit groups concerned about a loss of funding.

A coalition called the New Hampshire Funders Forum has committed to hiring a part-time consultant for census outreach.  

"A lot of it is being done at the local level," said Ken Gallager, a planner with New Hampshire's Office of Strategic Initiatives who heads the state's Complete Count Committee. "While it would be nice to have additional funds for outreach, there's a lot of people coming together to do what they can with their own resources to get the word out."

Massachusetts also set up local complete count committees for outreach to officials and community groups. Concerns about undercounted populations were stoked by Trump administration efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.

The move was ultimately blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the unprecedented spending on census prep underscores what’s at stake.

"It's unusual to have this much money pouring into census outreach by states," she said. "I think it shows that the connection between the census data and federal funding to the states is clearer than its ever been.”

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

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