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Under the radar stories from census data

Under the radar stories from census data
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The Census Bureau released 2020 population data, including each state’s apportioned population (apportioned populations include overseas residents). 

The most widely communicated information was the change in the number of congressional seats for each state, with Texas gaining two seats and Oregon, North Carolina, Montana, Florida and Colorado each gaining one seat. To balance these gains and keep the total number of members of Congress at 435, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Michigan, Illinois and California each lost one seat. State legislatures now have the first round of ammunition to redraw their congressional maps, with expanding state elected officials elated and those in shrinking states scrambling to protect their party’s turf.  

With the census data dust now settled, what other information is available, but less widely discussed? 

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The seven seat changes represent the smallest such reallocation dating back to 1920, when the number of congressional seats increased to 435. Each member of Congress now represents just over 760,000 people, more than the entire populations of three states: Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming. A growing population tethered to a fixed number of seats will continue to limit the number of seat changes in 2030 and beyond. 

Florida continued its unblemished record of adding seats in every census since 1920, though with just one addition in 2020, this represents its smallest gain since 1940. At the same time, Illinois and New York continued their downward spiral of losing seats, with Illinois going from 27 (in 1930) down to 17, and New York going from 45 (in 1940) down to 26.  

As pinnacles of stability, Minnesota and Maryland both remained unwaveringly resilient to losing or gaining seats, each having held its eight seats since 1960.  

Which state has been most representative of the national average in population growth over the past decade? Nebraska has this distinction, while maintaining its three congressional seats (since 1960).   

Three states, Illinois, Mississippi and West Virginia, actually lost residents. This should be wake-up calls to their leadership that collectively, people are not only unhappy living in their states relative to other states, they may just plain unhappy and fleeing en masse.  

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Although pundits argue that population changes are driven by recent policy changes and events, long-term trends in seats gained or lost (a surrogate for population changes relative to the entire country) have remained steadfastly resilient in almost all states, with either downward or upward trends persisting. Since 1970, the only exceptions have been California (breaking its longstanding upward trend in 2020 with the loss of one seat). Montana (which lost a seat in 1990, only to gain it back in 2020), and Tennessee (which lost a seat in 1970, only to gain it back in 1980). Therefore, people have been voting with their feet for over half a century, and are likely to continue to do so.    

Given that state legislatures are critical contributors to the congressional redistricting process in each state, the party that controls these legislatures often holds the gerrymandering wild card in the redistricting process. As such, the six states that gained seats should result in a net gain of three congressional seats for Republicans, while the seven states that each lost a seat will result in a net gain of one congressional seat for Republicans. This represents a net gain of four Republican seats in total, just by how congressional maps are drawn. In a 2022 election, which is certain to be close, these four seats can mean the difference between control and minority status for each party. 

The U.S. population grew by just over 7 percent since 2010. This means that states that grew by less than this percent were not keeping pace with the country as a whole, while those growing by more were magnets for new residents. A total of 22 states grew by more than 7 percent, with Utah and Idaho having the largest percent increases, though neither gained a congressional seat.   

In general, the Census Bureau’s Equal Proportions Methods makes it easier for high population states to gain and lose seats compared to smaller states. Six of the seven states losing a seat and three of the six states gaining seats have 10 or more seats, even though there are just 13 such populous states. Looking ahead, amongst the top 10 states that were in line to add another congressional seat, nine are states with 10 or more seats. This creates headwinds for Utah or Idaho to gain a seat in 2030, even if current population trends continue.   

Census data provides the opportunity to get a snapshot of our nation. The 2020 census, with all the challenges posed by COVID-19, delivered useful information that can benefit lawmakers. The bigger obstacle is convincing them to be sensitive to the resulting trends and use it to enact laws and policies that do not serve their own personal interests but rather, are in the best interest of their constituents.  Hoping for such altruism from elected officials may be beyond what they are willing to deliver, but would be a welcome respite from “politics as usual” during these divisive times.  

Sheldon H. Jacobson, PhD, is a founder professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is a data scientist focusing on data–driven decision-making under uncertainty.