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Beware the Census Undercount

One of my students once interned for Senator Moynihan. He handed her an econometrics report she tried to beg off reviewing, “Senator, I am a Poli-Sci major, not a math major.” He said, “Allison, politics is math.”

There is no more sublime math problem than counting, and counting everyone so everyone is counted is a major politics problem, and the job of the decennial Census mandated by the US Constitution, occurring next in 2010. 

We may not be ready by 2010 and that’s bad. Who lives where determines the distribution of government power and money: The Census apportions Congressional and state legislative seats and billions of dollars in federal and state monies. If you are living near the kinds of people who don’t get counted when the usual census takers come knocking at the door — immigrants, workers with erratic schedules and lives, landlords who illegally subdivide property, households with family members in prison — your Congressional district will get diluted and you won’t get your fair share of funds or equal legislative representation. According to Prof. Andy Beveridge, New York City has been undercounted for years, and his logic applies equally well to all big cities.

The Ford Foundation views undercounting as a fundamental threat to democracy: “In the United States millions of people are routinely excluded from democratic participation through failures in the census, redistricting and elections processes. … Each decade, the census fails to accurately count communities of color, immigrants, low-income and other marginalized populations; an estimated 4.5 million people were missed in the 2000 census.”

Because of the Bush Administrations’ neglect the Government is behind in its planning. A first-rate Census director, the University of Michigan’s Robert Groves, was only just appointed last month and the agency is already one year behind.

Fox News and other right-wing bloggers have been agitating about the alleged politicization of the Census, although conservative statistician Bruce Chapman (the 1980 Census Director and now director of a Creationist museum) supports the allocation of extra funds and extra efforts to count those missed by routine methods. But his conservative allies do not. They prefer to have minorities and other less-represented groups undercounted, as it weakens progressive political forces. Right wingers succeeded in getting the community organization ACORN fired as a helper for the 2010 Census.

Groves needs to make sure every professional technique is used to count everyone: statistical sampling, imputation and hard count, and using trusted community groups to reach out to undercounted minorities. All Americans should support having the most accurate Census possible, using all appropriate methods and reaching out to all communities.

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