Immigration prisons do not mean a Census windfall

An Associated Press story spreads confusion and fear about potential changes in how prisoners counted for redistricting purposes.

by Peter Wagner, June 1, 2010

The Associated Press is reporting that Census Bureau counts of detained immigrants may “bring money to the towns, cities and counties in Texas, Arizona, Washington and Georgia where the country’s biggest and newest facilities are located.”

That’s simply wrong, as is the fear that a recent change in how the Census Bureau publishes the prison counts will impact funding.

This story repeats some facts about why the participation in the Census is important, and then takes those facts to a flawed conclusion. The article incorrectly says that “[t]he payout can be hefty for small towns” and then seeks to back it up with this true but misleading sentence:

“Federal money being
distributed from the census averaged about $1,469 per person in fiscal
year 2008, according to the Brookings Institute.”

The Brookings Institute report is consistent with our previous research which shows that the fast majority of federal aid is block grants to states, primarily for Medicaid and highways. The $1,469 simply does not go to localities.

Even more troubling is the unnecessary fear that this story raises about new changes at the Census Bureau:

“This census brings a twist, though. For the first time, states have
the option of counting people in detention centers and prisons as
residents of their last address before they’re detained, worrying some
local lawmakers who say cities and counties that host detention
centers could lose money.”

This paragraph misstates both what the Census Bureau has agreed to do, and what it means. As Aleks Kajstura has explained, states and local governments have always had the option to adjust the Census Bureau’s population counts. In fact, more than 100 localities already reject the Census Bureau’s prison count when redistricting. By publishing the prison counts earlier, the Census Bureau will make this process easier. But if states want to follow Maryland and count people in prison at their home addresses, they need to collect and process that data themselves. The Census Bureau is not collecting or distributing home address data at all.

Government funding formulas are sophisticated attempts to match limited funds to the specific needs. School funds, for example, are distributed in large part by the number of children, and poverty funds, are distributed by various measures of poverty. All of these measures are too sophisticated to be fooled by prison counts, and no federal aid program is based on state or county redistricting data.

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