For most of us, census data is terribly boring. If not boring, then at least confusing – a swarm of census tracts and statistics and search options that often make it very hard to figure out what the numbers really mean. But for people like Stephanie Shipp, a transit planner with HDR Engineering in Phoenix, the numbers mean a lot.
“Data is like king in our world,” she said.
The world she’s talking about - transportation planning - relies on census figures because they reveal how many people might need mass transit in the region. So for Shipp, the most scintillating piece of data is the figure that says how many people in a given area do not own or have access to a car.
If this number were to go up, Shipp said: “We could turn around and say to the Feds: ‘Well, we built this project and it’s serving a higher proportion of low-income people than the region as a whole. So this is a great benefit to the community.' ”
Shipp concluded: “Thus, you should give us money.”
This is what the data is really used for. As soon as it’s released, transit planners like Shipp and, really, government planners and non-profit grant writers of all kinds, start looking for numbers that demonstrate a need. For example, Shipp makes the case that a high number of people without cars means Arizona needs more light rail trains. On behalf of various transit agencies all over the Southwest, she applies for grants from the Federal Transit Administration. The FTA has a “New Starts” program, for example, that funds new transit projects that cost more than $250 million dollars to build.
Other grant writers look elsewhere - to both government agencies and private foundations. If an agency wants money to fight crime, for instance, they might go to the Bureau of Justice Assistance. If an organization wants money for affordable housing, they might look to the MacArthur Foundation. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation funds projects for low-income kids. The Arizona-based Virginia C. Piper Foundation helps with local programs for seniors. All of these grant-seekers will use census data to make the case that they need more money.
When all of the different grants and proposals are finished and funded, Arizona gets about $1500 per resident per year from various federal agencies, said Heidi Bickart, a regional planner in Maricopa County.
“The census data brings several billions of dollars to the state,” she said. “Cities and towns use census data for essential services like fire, police, senior centers, neighborhood parks.”
Like most planners, Bickart is big on population growth. This is because more residents equals more money.
“So basically, if you don’t have a good census count, you’re looking at losing community services, services that everybody needs and relies upon,” she said.
If federal money follows population growth, it’s because more people tends to mean more problems.
In Anthony Vidale’s case, more people also tends to mean more crime. Vidale is the director of the Drug, Gang, and Violent Crime Control program at the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission. His job is to make sure crime fighters in the state have the resources that they need.
“So I guess if I was looking for good news, it would be an increase in population in Arizona relative to other states means that there are more resources that come into Arizona that we could make funding decisions off of,” he said. “The bad news is maybe your crime problem increases.”
In so many ways, for the people who rely on the census numbers to bring in more money - bad news ends up being good news. The bigger the problem - more poverty, more crime - the more money a grant writer can confidently apply for.