Census Undercounted Some Groups, Overcounted Others
Antiquated counting methods lead to misallocation of resources.
NPR (“The 2020 census had big undercounts of Black people, Latinos and Native Americans“):
The 2020 census continued a longstanding trend of undercounting Black people, Latinos and Native Americans, while overcounting people who identified as white and not Latino, according to estimates from a report the U.S. Census Bureau released Thursday.
Latinos — with a net undercount rate of 4.99% — were left out of the 2020 census at more than three times the rate of a decade earlier.
Among Native Americans living on reservations (5.64%) and Black people (3.30%), the net undercount rates were numerically higher but not statistically different from the 2010 rates.
People who identified as white and not Latino were overcounted at a net rate of 1.64%, almost double the rate in 2010. Asian Americans were also overcounted (2.62%). The bureau said based on its estimates, it’s unclear how well the 2020 tally counted Pacific Islanders.
The long-awaited findings came from a follow-up survey the bureau conducted to measure the accuracy of the latest head count of people living in the U.S., which is used to redistribute political representation and federal funding across the country for the next 10 years.
Other estimates the bureau released on Thursday revealed that the most recent census followed another long-running trend of undercounting young children under age 5.
Despite following long-term trends, the 2020 Census was conducted under highly unusual conditions:
While the bureau’s stated goal is to “count everyone once, only once, and in the right place,” miscounts have come with every census. Some people are counted more than once at different addresses, driving overcounts, while U.S. residents missing from the census fuel undercounting.
Disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic and interference by former President Donald Trump’s administration raised alarms about the increased risk of the once-a-decade tally missing swaths of the country’s population. COVID-19 also caused multiple delays to the bureau’s Post-Enumeration Survey that’s used to determine how accurate the census results are and inform planning for the next national count in 2030.
During the news conference announcing the follow-up survey results, Census Bureau Director Robert Santos — who, before becoming the agency’s head, told Bloomberg CityLab that he believed the census was “being sabotaged” during the Trump administration to produce results that benefit Republicans — acknowledged “an unprecedented set of challenges” facing the bureau over the last couple of years.
“Many of you, including myself, voiced concerns. How could anyone not be concerned? These findings will put some of those concerns to rest and leave others for further exploration,” Santos, a Biden administration appointee, said during the news conference announcing the follow-up survey results.
The bureau said previously that it believes the census results are “fit to use” for reallocating each state’s share of congressional seats and Electoral College votes, as well as redrawing voting districts.
What’s the problem then? That’s what the Census is for, no?
Census numbers are also used to guide the distribution of an estimated $1.5 trillion each year in federal money to communities for health care, education, transportation and other public services.
Oh, that’s right.
Some tribal, state and local officials are considering ways of challenging the results for potential corrections that would be factored into future funding decisions.
The report the bureau released on Thursday only provided a national-level look at the count’s accuracy, and the agency says it’s planning to release state-level metrics this summer.
“There are a lot more states for us to check and review and look through,” said Timothy Kennel, assistant division chief for statistical methods, during a webinar before Thursday’s release.
So, leaving aside interference from Trump, this whole thing is bizarre, right? Even though the Constitution specifies a decennial count for the purposes of allocating House seats, and by extension the Electoral College (each state gets an Elector for its two Senators and one for each of its Representatives) the Census Bureau is constantly sampling the population and putting out revised information. Indeed, it’s so transparent at this point that a simple Google search will give you the revised information without even clicking a link.
We do all of this with statistical sampling techniques that have been perfected over more than a century. Yet, the Supreme Court has ruled that it is impermissible to do that for the actual apportionment count.
Because I’m getting old, I thought that controversy was over the 2010 Census and I spent quite a while trying to unearth my takes on the matter here at OTB. I was unsuccessful because the dispute was over the 2000 Census and the SCOTUS ruling in question came out three years before I launched the blog.
The Supreme Court yesterday rejected the federal government’s plan for using a controversial counting method to estimate portions of the nation’s population in the 2000 Census, ruling in a case that carries enormous political and economic consequences for communities around the country.
By a 5 to 4 vote, the justices said federal law prevents the Clinton administration from supplementing the Census Bureau’s traditional procedure of trying to reach every household with statistical estimates that would be used to determine the nation’s population and divide seats in Congress among the states.
But beyond the crucial apportionment purpose of the census, the court did not foreclose allowing “statistical sampling” for other important purposes, such as the drawing of political boundaries within each state and the allocation of federal funds for everything from road construction to housing for the poor. And the Clinton administration made clear yesterday it intends to move forward with plans to provide population estimates that states could use for everything other than determining how many congressional seats each state would receive.
I honestly don’t remember my contemporaneous take (perhaps my co-blogger and then-teaching colleague Steven Taylor does) but I suspect I was suspicious of Clinton’s intentions. Regardless, in hindsight, it seems clear that, to the extent we want to make important decisions based on where people actually live, statistical sampling is far superior to trying to get an actual count of people. We’ve known for a long time that minority and poor subgroups are harder to count directly. And, for obvious reasons, illegal aliens, the homeless, and other marginalized groups are next to impossible to count by traditional methods.