The Census and Modern Life

Reading the press release today about the accuracy of the 2020 Census isn’t for the faint of heart. If you lack a good grasp of statistical concepts, this release is going to appear to be written in Martian.

The Census Bureau regularly conducts followup analyses to examine the accuracy of the reported data. These analyses include both an independent survey as well as an examination of data on vital statistics (births, deaths and immigration) to see how closely the results of those efforts match the numbers from the Census itself.

Why does the Census matter so much?

  • It’s used to determine how many seats in the US House of Representatives each state gets.
  • It’s used to allocated Federal funds between the states.
  • It’s critical input to decisions that businesses make about products, warehouse and store placement. The Census affects where new jobs are going to appear.

The basic gist of the release is that the data from the 2020 Census is good but imperfect. No surprise. Humans don’t do perfect.

The Census overcounted whites and Asians in the US, and undercounted some minorities and children. The undercounting of Hispanics and Native Americans has occurred in past Censuses, so this is nothing new as well.

The media has suggested that the US Census undercounted the size of the US population. That’s not what the press release says and for a variety of reasons, it’s not clear that the assertion is true.

The accuracy issues reflect both problems in government data as well as cooperation among certain groups in the population:

  • The Federal government tracks legal immigration, and produces estimates of undocumented immigrants, but the latter is subject to substantial windage. Probably more significantly, the Federal government doesn’t report the number of citizens who chose to live permanently outside the US. Looking at data from other countries, the number of US civilian expatriots could exceed 10 million, but we just don’t know for sure. The Census should have a category for nonresident citizens, but it doesn’t.
  • Some groups appear to be concerned that the Census data would be used as the basis for enforcement action against undocumented immigrants. That use of the data would be both illegal and impossible. First, Census data really is confidential. Second, there were no questions on the 2020 Census questionnaire about immigration status. You cannot do anything with data you don’t collect. (The former president made statements to the contrary, but those statements were wrong.) This concern clearly affected cooperation rates among Hispanics and Native Americans.
  • Some groups are highly sensitive about their personal information, and didn’t understand the very limited nature of what the Census was collecting.
  • A complete lack of understanding of the concept of citizenship and the responsibilities that accompany it.

I worked as an enumerator for the Census, and I know I spent more time trying to talk people into participating that it actually took to complete the survey. Seriously, I would spend 30 minutes try to convince people to cooperate when the actual survey could be done in less than 5 minutes in most cases. Sure, a household with 8 children would take longer, but how many of those do you know?

For most statistical purposes, the Census is good enough, and it remains the best data source we have. Everything else is worse.



One comment

  1. Reblogged this on Ned Hamson's Second Line View of the News and commented:
    I was a Census supervisor many moons ago – 1980 and also worked to wrap up East Detroit that year so they could end on time. My area had less than 1% error and we got Detroit done on time and within accepted error range. New surveys on various topics are done every year. They still do excellent work.


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