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Census Convergence

Apparently the convergence of these three events has never happened before. The winter solstice has coincided with a total lunar eclipse at least once before in the past 2000 years, and those events coincided with a third, the release of 2010 census data, on Tuesday December 21, 2010. 

In astronomical terms, it’s a form of syzygy; in public policy terms, it’s the moment serious policy and political debates begin.

Demographers and other analysts wait impatiently for the once-a-decade data release because it sets the stage for 10 years worth of analyses and forms the basis of Census sampling frames. Policy and political types wait anxiously because the Census determines how more than $400 billion in federal funds is allocated and how seats in the House of Representatives will be reapportioned.

While this first announcement by the Census Bureau is limited to headcounts for states and the nation, more data will come in the next few months.

This year is different from the past several decades because we no longer have the Census “long form” which was the way we understood the rich economic, social, housing and demographic details of the way Americans live. Census 2010 used the “short form” only, noted for its slogan “10 questions, 10 minutes.” It provides a basic demographic description of the country, notably race and ethnic composition, age, and household composition.

Since 2005, the American Community Survey (ACS) has been conducted annually as part of the decennial census program and is essentially what used to be the long form. The ACS is where we learn about the American people in a more detailed way. We get our stats on education, work and income, commuting, and immigration from this survey. It is used by decision makers at the local, state and federal levels.

The ACS, along with decennial census data, also drive our analyses in the State of Metropolitan America project at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.

The 2010 Census data released Tuesday is consumed most immediately by political analysts who calculate the potential partisan effects of state-level population shifts. Census 2010 revealed that 12 seats in the House of Representatives will be leaving states in the slow-growing Northeast and Midwest and moving to fast growing states in the West and South. In other words, shifting from mostly blue states to mostly red states. 

But the demographic transformation under way in the United States is much more complex than simply the shifts in where people live, complicating the political calculus. Many of the states that gained population saw increases in non-white minorities, especially Latinos. And while some immigrant newcomers are not currently eligible to vote, in most of the states that added seats, Hispanics tend to vote Democratic. When the next tranche of 2010 Census data are delivered in February, we will know by how much this population has grown and where.