If you're the type of person who loves data, there are few sources as sweet as the U.S. Census. Curious how many college graduates there are in Coos County? How many widows in Nashua? What percentage of Merrimack County homes stand vacant? The Census Bureau is your place.
Every 10 years, the Bureau releases a slew of numbers that paint a portrait of the nation and provide a comparison to the past and a projection for the future.
In December 2010, the Bureau released the gross population figures for the nation and individual states, and more information on the characteristics of the population, down to the neighborhood level.
Population and Policy
But the Census is more than just a national head count.
The data contained there will shape thousands of policy and political decisions across the nation and in NH. Population figures determine how Americans are represented in Congress and in their state legislatures.
They help determine how much money is spent on highways in Manchester, public schools in Claremont and low-income housing in Concord. And the Census estimates offer a hint of the demographic challenges awaiting us in coming decades.
What does the Census tell us about the way America is aging? The answer will help shape coming debates on reforms to programs such as Medicare and Social Security. State population counts for race and Hispanic or Latino categories, due out in the coming weeks, will likely inform the debate over immigration policy. And how will rising Latino populations across the nation shape future elections and campaign dialogue?
The population figures contained in the Census determine about $400 billion in federal funding. These numbers help determine where money is steered for transportation (including road and railroad projects), subsidized housing, heating assistance, agricultural subsidies, education aid and other programs.
Redrawing Political Boundaries
The 2010 Census counts will also fuel a number of political debates in the coming year. Data released in May will be used to redraw congressional districts.
While the borders of those districts won't be determined for a while, we already know which states stand to gain and lose House seats based on changes in population since 2000. Among those picking up seats: Texas, Georgia, Nevada and Arizona. Among the losers: New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio and Michigan. That information alone is a quick lesson in demographics and national migration patterns.
Data from the same counts will eventually be used to redraw NH's legislative districts. For the first time, those districts will have to conform to a 2006 constitutional amendment requiring that single-town districts be drawn wherever possible, rather than multi-town districts. What will the implications of that change be for state policy debates, especially issues of intense local interest such as education funding and school building aid?
Check Out the Neighbors
In December, the Census Bureau released data that can be used by everyone to examine their neighborhood characteristics from 2005 to 2009 and compare them to adjacent areas. Known as the American Community Survey, this is a rolling survey of population throughout the United States. In NH, this survey will help shape our understanding of the state's evolution and tell us if the demographic trends of recent years are holding steady, accelerating or slowing.
For the Granite State, this is the first opportunity to see much of the detailed data for our cities and towns. These estimates will tell us key attributes of our communities; data that, if used wisely, can help fashion good policy. That data includes the frequency of people moving into and out of an area; the mix of rental and owned homes; the average number of vehicles owned by households; how people in the area travel to work, including the length of their commutes; whether there are multi-generation families in the area; what languages are spoken in the area; variation in income in the area; area housing expenses; and many more data points.
Most importantly, these estimates will be used to apportion public dollars to cities, towns and school districts, based on the portion of people in poverty, the number of low-to-moderate-income households and other characteristics. In other words, while the Census tells us who we are, it also helps shape our future.
Daniel R. Barrick is deputy director of, and Dennis Delay an economist with, the NH Center for Public Policy Studies, an independent, nonprofit, non-partisan organization that pursues data-driven research on public policy. Its work includes research on the state budget, public school funding and health care finance. For more information or to contact either Barrick or Delay, visit www.nhpolicy.org.