Counted out of the census

The U.S. census has historically undercounted minorities.

by Patrick O’Mahen

WeâÄôre lucky to have Michigan man and highly decorated social scientist Robert Groves running the U.S. Census Bureau. Yet, when Groves worked at the bureau on the 1990 count and suggested adjusting the censusâÄô official numbers based on sampling that showed severe undercounts for children and minority groups, he was shut down by the first Bush administrationâÄôs Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher. And in a 2009 article in TIME Magazine, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, RâÄìCalif., suggested that President Barack ObamaâÄôs selection of Groves was âÄútroublingâÄù and would open the door to advance âÄúan ulterior political agenda.âÄù From the perspective of scientific accuracy and political justice, that 1990 decision and IssaâÄôs complaints are misguided. Social scientists like Groves have developed statistical tools that allow us to make more accurate inferences about populations than do direct attempts at counting. As currently designed, the census undercounts minority communities, unjustly costing them federal aid. Although it tries to count everyone personally âÄî unlike a national sample used in, for example, the Gallup Poll measuring ObamaâÄôs approval rating âÄî the census still falls prey to all the potential pitfalls of any survey research. HereâÄôs how: The first and most important key for any surveyâÄôs accuracy is that each member of the population you are trying to survey must have an equal chance of being selected for the survey. Because it is trying to count everyone directly, in principle the U.S. Census questionnaire satisfies this requirement âÄî every resident has a 100-percent chance of being selected. But in reality, the count fails to include every resident. This failure would not be a massive problem if members of every demographic group were equally likely to respond to the survey, but the truth is some groups are less likely to be counted than others. That creates non-random error, and leads to biased results. College students, for example, are often confused by census instructions and do not respond to the survey, thinking that they will be counted with their parents in their hometowns. The Michigan Daily reported Jan. 31 that Ann ArborâÄôs overall response rate to the 2000 census survey was 76 percent, but one primarily student-intensive neighborhood had a response rate of 38 percent. Though missing college students is bad, the problem is much broader. After the census is completed, follow-up researchers randomly select samples of residents and ask them if they werenâÄôt counted, were counted once or counted multiple times. The results of those follow-up surveys show that some groups tend to be undercounted much more severely than others. For example after the 1990 count, the Census Bureau estimated that African Americans were undercounted by a rate of 4.4 percent and Hispanics by roughly 5 percent. In contrast, whites were undercounted by only 0.9 percent. Minority children were undercounted, most significantly among African Americans, by rates up to 7.1 percent. These discrepancies have serious political and economic consequences. Since the census affects apportionment and redistricting of congressional seats, states with large numbers of minorities might miss out on representatives. More important is the lack of federal money flowing to communities that need it. Communities of minority children tend to be clustered together in major cities, which then donâÄôt get their fair share of government funding for education and other social programs. Of course, when social scientists like Groves have pointed this out in the past, they have been accused of being biased and political opportunists for Democrats, who tend to be supported by undercounted minority groups. In this case, though, the truth is that the only bias is in the original direct count. So, if post-count surveys indicate that census data need adjusting, Republicans ought to shut their yaps and let the professionals make the adjustments. This column was originally published in The Michigan Daily at the University of Michigan.