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How states rank: Federal spending driven by census data

The distribution of more than $400 billion in federal spending is determined by census data. An analysis released Tuesday looks at which states get the most money per capita.

By Ron SchererStaff writer / March 9, 2010

K'Treana Taylor eats a hot dog at a community resource fair Feb. 18, in Galveston, Texas. The fair is to explain to people the importance of participating in the 2010 Census. An accurate census count is particularly important to the island city ravaged by Hurricane Ike.

AP Photo/Pat Sullivan


New York

In the weeks ahead, tens of millions of Americans will be asked to provide information for the US census.

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For the states and the District of Columbia, the Census Bureau says, more than $400 billion in federal spending is at stake. (For more on the 2010 Census, click here.

So: Which states will benefit the most from an accurate census?

On a per capita basis, the answer is rural areas and places with a large poor population, according to an analysis released Tuesday by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

The following conclusion may be surprising to some: Politics does not appear to have played a large role in which states get more money. For example, the state of Nevada – which has high-ranking Democrat Harry Reid in the Senate – came in last in terms of per capita spending of federal dollars as related to census numbers.

“In general, politics does not enter in. Congress sets the formulas,” says Andrew Reamer, a Brookings fellow who did the analysis. “Most states get their money based on numbers, which is why an accurate census is so important.”

Mr. Reamer looked at the data in terms of metropolitan areas, counties, and states. In terms of metro areas, state capitals dominated in per capita spending – in large part because money flows from Washington to the state capitals for further distribution. Thus, the top five metro areas were all capitals: Albany, N.Y.; Sacramento, Calif.; Baton Rouge, La.; Harrisburg, Pa.; and Austin, Texas.

A look at the states may better illustrate how the census matters. Here’s one part of that analysis: The largest state program that relies on federal census statistics is Medicaid, the program for individuals who are not covered by private health-insurance programs and have low incomes. Medicaid represents about 58 percent of the federal census-driven dollars.

However, it’s not just a large population that matters for Medicaid. Instead, each state determines income-level eligibility, plus what health issues will be covered. What this means is that California, America’s most populous state, ranks 20th in terms of per capita federal spending based on census numbers. Vermont, meanwhile, has a generous Medicaid program, meaning that the rural state ranks second.

$400 billion in federal spending is determined by census data. Keep up to speed on all things census by following us on Twitter and Facebook.