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Sunday, September 14, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 57.0° F  A Few Clouds
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What's our fair share, really?
Maybe the people of Dane County are already getting too much
on
Christian Schneider
Christian Schneider

If you have at least one eyeball and a television, you've no doubt seen the advertisements urging U.S. citizens to fill out and send in their Census forms.

In the most recent ad, a fat, mustachioed, bathrobe-wearing Everyman named "Frank" prances around town extolling the virtues of Census compliance. He promises that those who do will get their "fair share" of government funding while he stands over a woman in labor getting into an ambulance. (If he had been dancing around my wife while she was in labor, she would have ripped off his mustache and beat him to death with it.)

The ad trades on the ultimate conceit of government funding: that there's no better way to spend taxpayer money than on me. That every given community is entitled to its "fair share," regardless of the needs of others.

Furthermore, it leaves the impression that all citizens must do is send in their Census forms, sit back and wait for Uncle Sam to start sending money their way.

In fact, most government programs don't rely on Census data to determine funding levels. Public school aids, where state government spends more than half its money, are based on a three-year rolling average of pupil enrollment. To get Medicare or Medicaid, you actually must sign up for it.

Plus many of these programs are generally reserved for people with substantial problems - poverty, sickness, disability.

The other false impression given by these commercials is that people who don't fill out their forms will somehow not be counted. In fact, the Census uses highly complex modeling formulas to count those who don't comply. So it's not as though you disappear from the face of the Earth if you fail to send in your form.

It is true, of course, that having accurate Census numbers is useful when drawing legislative districts. But districts are still drawn via the political process, so their demographics are subject to the capriciousness of politicians and, oftentimes, judges.

Still, for the sake of argument, let's take Dancing Frank at his word. Let's say that if everyone in Dane County filled out their census forms, the government funding spigot would open, and the county would get its "fair share."

What would that "fair share" look like?

According to the Census (irony noted), the median household income in Dane County is nearly $10,000 higher than in the rest of the state. The county's average home value is $241,700, or 39.4% higher than Wisconsin as a whole.

Dane County has a lower percentage of people over 65 (9.7% as opposed to 13.3%) than the rest of the state, and fewer African Americans (4.5% compared to 6.1%, a percentage undoubtedly skewed by Milwaukee County's 25% black population).

If we follow the Census' logic, the more Dane County residents who fill out their forms, the more funding we'll get. In other words, more government dollars will flow to the wealthy, young, white people of south central Wisconsin - and less to those around the state in truly dire straits.

When people refer to getting their fair share of government funding, they always think they deserve more. Nobody ever thinks it's fair to receive less. But, as it turns out, our share may not be that fair.

In fact, perhaps the best thing that could happen for the truly needy people of Wisconsin would be for Dane County to sink into Lake Mendota.

Wisconsin's school aid equalization formula, despite all its critics, actually recognizes this inequity. Madison schools receive a much lower percentage of pupil costs (41%, as opposed to roughly 64% statewide) due in large part to the community's wealth.

In the case of school aids, the purpose is to "equalize" spending, so districts with smaller tax bases receive more state tax money.

And yet many local school advocates believe the district isn't getting its fair share, despite Madison's wealth relative to the rest of the state. But if the state were to give more to Madison's school district, it would necessarily have to give less to property-poor districts like Beloit (which gets 85.1% of its pupil costs).

It's natural to believe that your local community knows best how to spend government aid. But I don't pay taxes to improve my own lot in life - as the Census ads promise. I'd like to think my tax money betters the lives of those unable to do so on their own.

We shouldn't buy into the Census bureau's logic that any government money spent is best spent on us. Even if this talking point is delivered by a dancing guy in a bathrobe.

Christian Schneider lives in Madison, works for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, and blogs at christianschneiderblog.com.

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