October 24, 2021

How census statistics are used in everyday life

The numbers in action

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Bruce Thauvette, left, and Jason Sherman play Thursday at Learning Adventure child care center. Information from the census helps the United Way of Cortland County provide funding to the YWCA, which owns the center.

If you want to know how important census information is to Cortland, look inside Jami Bistocchi’s child-care program, run through the YWCA: It got money because census data showed Cortland needed it.

“It helps us meet the demand for the people we’re serving and meet their needs,” said Bistocchi, the organization’s child care director, as she prepared chicken for a room-full of kids.


You count

This story is part of our three-day package covering the 2020 census. If you missed a day and want to catch up, or want to see what we have coming for day three, visit our landing page here.


The United Way of Cortland County and the public health consortium Cortland Counts use census data to determine priorities for funding — such as the YWCA child-care programs.

Census data around the greater Cortland area is used to study racial makeup, develop communities and provide information for funding non-profit programs.

The data help the federal government divvy up between $675 billion and $880 billion in spending on housing, transportation and more, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and George Washington University.

“It can answer anything about large scale demographics,” said Jeremy Wolf, an associate professor of political science at SUNY Cortland. “The census is invaluable.”

Research: Looking at who we are

Data acquisition for the decennial census, which is required by the U.S. Constitution, will start being gathered about mid-March. It will take a couple of years to compile, but after that will be used to determine legislative districts, spending priorities.

And anything else an academic researcher can think of.

At the academic level, especially in higher education, census statistics can help tell the story of how racial groups interact — and how segregated neighborhoods might be — said Matthew Hall, a demographer and associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University’s Institute for Public Affairs.

Hall uses census data to study how populations change and how populations both shape and are shaped by public policy, particularly race relations and inequality. He also looks at how immigration creates or changes segregation in cities.

“Patterns of segregation tell us something about the extent of inequality between groups,” Hall said.

It can help show which racial groups are more exposed to poverty and crimes and which groups have greater access to resources that can help provide economic mobility.

“When areas undergo rapid racial change, that tends to lead to increases in segregation as groups move into separate neighborhoods,” he said. “But over time that seems to fade.”

Hall speculated that the reason for this was that over time, groups become more accustomed to each other and less likely to be in homogenous clusters.

Census data also helps improve research accuracy. Its sample size is so large there’s virtually no margin of error, even for the American Community Survey that fills in the 10 years between censuses.

“The success of the projects depends on highly accurate but also highly complete data,” he said. “The census provides data that allows for examinations of patterns that we wouldn’t be able to see in other data.”

Planning: Looking at who we want to be

Beyond providing a statistical makeup of the population, the census provides a wealth of information that can be used for almost anything, said Rich Cunningham, president and a senior consultant at Thoma Development Consultants in Cortland.

“It’s one of our best sources for raw data,” he said.

Thoma Development, a community development firm, uses the census and the American Community Survey to look at housing data, like the type of housing in an area, the number of occupants per house and the cost of housing, for planning and grant writing, Cunningham said.

While Thoma Development tends to use the American Community Survey more than the census, the census provides a more complete sampling, he said.

“It’s good, clear, objective data that are universally accepted,” Cunningham said. “It’s data that can be depended on to be accurate.”

Prospective businesses looking to move into an area or thinking about expanding may also use census data, said Garry VanGorder the executive director of the Cortland County Business Development Corp. and Industrial Development Agency. Companies consider the economic worth of a population when helping to decide whether to move into the county.

“It’s just an important tool for those who are looking to do investments in Cortland County,” he said.

Wellbeing: Statistics in action

As Bistocchi hauled large pans of chicken from an oven to a counter at Cortland’s YWCA, she said the census is critical for the organization’s well-being. Most of the funding from the United Way goes to the YWCA’s child care programs, like the Learning Adventure child care center on Huntington Street, where it helps pay for food, staffing and supplies, she said. The United Way doesn’t use census data directly, but it does rely on the health consortium Cortland Counts, which does, said Christella Yonta, the executive director of Cortland’s United Way.

This information is used to determine the needs and funding of the community to non-pro t organizations like the YWCA, as well as programs for housing, emergency assistance for food, programs for people to get higher paying jobs, and programs to help make people more employable, Yonta said.

Census data helps with federal funding, Yonta said.

“We can say Cortland has a large population of socio-economically challenged people, but because we’re not as big as Syracuse or Binghamton or Rochester or Buffalo, we’re not included in those funding opportunities,” she said.

That makes getting accurate data essential for Cortland’s future, she said, and why it’s so important to take part.

“If we’re not able to document what the needs are in our county, they get underfunded” she said.


How do you define race?

Census allows you to check multiple boxes

In the census, respondents are asked to identify their race.

That’s not as straightforward as it sounds. The 2010 census had 15 possible responses, and even a blank to provide more specific detail, such as the principal tribe an indigenous American might identify with.

This census provides six options.

  • White — A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa.
  • Black or African-American — A person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa.
  • American Indian or Alaska Native — A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America, including Central America, and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.
  • Asian — A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia or the Indian subcontinent including, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand and Vietnam.
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Paci c Islander — A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa or other Pacific islands.
  • Some other race.

But the Census Bureau recognizes race is a social category, not a genetic one, and is based on self-identification, said Jeremy Wolf, an assistant professor of political science at SUNY Cortland.

Census takers can also add other races in open spaces next to each option, he said.

They can also check more than one box, the Census Bureau reports.

Complications though can arise, said Matthew Hall, a demographer and associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University’s Institute for Public Affairs.

Questions are asked about race and ethnicity, but the two are not always the same.

“The majority of Hispanic individuals choose the Hispanic racial group, but identify as white,” he said.

Hall said the conflict comes from standards set by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget guidelines in 1997 determining racial makeup.

More so, people with Hispanic origins may be of any race, according to the Census Bureau. This greatly contributed to Some Other Race population as the third largest race group in both the 2000 and 2010 censuses.

To improve accuracy, a panel recommended in 2017 adding Latino as a race for the 2020 census, along with adding a Middle Eastern or North African category, Wolf said. The Office of Management and Budget did not act upon the recommendations.

“It’s really whenever the OMB gets around to it, if they get a round to it at all,” he said.

Expanding the options, though, will ultimately provide better information for the census, which can help create better policies based on the population, Wolf said.

“If we’re going to rely on the self-identification for census data, then we know those data will be better if they give them options they really fit into,” he said.