Expect lawsuits as the Census may have overlooked 1.5 million Californians

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California officials claim their more careful census shows that the population of California is 38.8 million, 1.5 million more than the federal census figure of 37.3 million. This discrepancy is more than just an academic interest, as the federal population count is used to determine the number of representatives in the House, as well as to apportion money to the states. California, facing a huge and growing budget deficit, obviously needs all the money it can get.

Had the state census number been used, California would have gotten one additional seat in the House.  But, for the first time ever, California did not get an additional seat based on the census. While California can do nothing about the number of seats in the House, as they are strictly set based on the federal census, it may well launch court fights to get an adjusted and higher census number. This would mean California would get more money from the federal government. 

But even if California succeeds, the money won’t be coming quickly. The federal census won’t release detailed numbers, which could aid the state in determining discrepancies, until 2011-2012. Also, if it can be shown that the undercount was uniform across all states, then the proportion of funding won’t change.

So, we can expect considerable political maneuvering, lawsuits, and general agitation from states who think their populations were undercounted. This of course means that any state that feels threatened by the possibility of losing its federal share will undoubtedly join in the fray, filing countersuits. This should result in a festive amount of squabbling which probably won’t be settled for several years to come. 

Unbelievably, given the importance of the census, California cut back on funding for census outreach, instead relying on private groups and non-profits to do the work for them. This was amazingly short-sighted, especially given that California has large numbers of “hard-to-count” residents, including the young, poor, migrants, and illegal immigrants.

Will they ever be counted? Do they actually exist? We may never know.

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