All Things Census


Recent Reading about Census Topics

The Wall Street Journal’s Numbers Guy columnist, Carl Bialik, recently wrote a print column and blog posting about the limited amount of information available on the size of religious populations in the U.S. The Census Bureau is barred from asking about religious affiliation, but dozens of other countries do so in their own headcounts.

The BBC has an article stating that officials have given approval to including a question about caste on India’s 2011 census, a topic that was last asked about in 1931. For more background, see this posting on All Things Census, which includes links to earlier news stories about this controversial issue.

The Census Bureau’s recent announcement that it will return $1.6 billion to the U.S. Treasury in 2010 Census operational savings was widely covered, with stories by The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today and NPR, among others. Here is the transcript of the news conference with Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves that includes an update on the status of the 2010 Census budget and operations.


New York Prisoners and the Census

New York legislators have passed a bill that would count prisoners at their home addresses, not those where they are incarcerated, for purposes of redrawing state and local legislative districts using data from the 2010 Census next year. The provision was included in a budget bill sent to Gov. David A. Paterson for his signature.

The Census Bureau announced in February that it would release detailed numbers earlier than usual so that states would be able to use 2010 Census data to exclude prisoners from being counted at their prison locations for redistricting purposes. Some state officials and legislators contend that the current practice of counting prisoners where they are incarcerated gives disproportionate power to communities with large prisons, which are often located in sparsely populated rural areas.

Maryland enacted similar legislation earlier this year. Delaware legislators have passed a similar bill, and sent it to the state’s governor, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a group that advocates for counting prisoners in their home communities.


Text-Messaging Plays Big Role in Indonesian Census

Indonesia, the world’s fourth-largest country, is taking a census this year, as it does each decade. Conducted in May, it relied heavily on text-messaging to convey data from enumerators in the field to their supervisors at central headquarters. According to a report on the Population Reference Bureau website, these day-by-day reports helped census officials monitor how well the count was going.

Also on the PRB website is a link to a video interview with the report’s author, Terence H. Hull, a consultant to the Indonesian census who is professor of demography in the Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute. Because of improvements in Indonesia’s census-taking this year, he forecasts that more than 240 million people will be counted, higher than the official prediction of 235 million.


Other Ways to Conduct a Census

The Wall Street Journal’s “The Numbers Guy” columnist, Carl Bialik, has weighed in on the debate over whether Americans should be required by law to fill in their census forms, and whether there are other ways to take the census. In an online column, he expanded on the challenges of conducting a mandatory census.

His print column includes comments from Tom Rickenbacker, son of the late William F. Rickenbacker, a National Review staff member who was fined $100 for refusing to fill in his 1960 Census form. The Rickenbacker case was one of the few times the government has prosecuted someone for violating the law that requires Americans to complete the form.

The Bialik column ends on this note: “So instead, the Census Bureau walks a fine line, calling participation mandatory but avoiding potential negative publicity from enforcing the law. This has worked on Tom Rickenbacker, who said, ‘I kind of believe somewhat in my father’s standpoint. I don’t believe they need to know that stuff.’ But, he added, ‘I fill it out and respond anyway.'”


Divergent World Population Trends

The Population Reference Bureau released its 2010 World Population Data Sheet today, focusing on the theme of divergent demographics in developed and developing nations. Population is barely growing in developed nations, where birth rates tend to be low and the number of elderly is increasing rapidly. Developing nations, where birth rates are higher, are projected to account for virtually all world population growth in coming decades.

The data sheet includes a chart showing nations with the world’s oldest populations, all of which are developed countries. At the top is Japan, where 22.6% of the population is 65 and older (in the U.S., the equivalent share is 13%). Another chart shows nations with the youngest populations, all of which are developing countries. At the top is Niger, where 50.1% of the population is under 15 (in the U.S., 20% of the population is under 15).

The data sheet includes 19 population, health and environment measures for more than 200 countries.


Federal Funding and the American Community Survey

Data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey help guide the distribution of 29% of federal domestic assistance spending and 69% of federal grant spending, according to a new Brookings Institution report. In dollar figures, that was $416 billion in assistance spending and $389.2 billion in grant funding during the 2008 fiscal year.

The report explains how the ACS, a monthly household survey that replaced the once-a-decade census long form, guides the distribution of funds. It argues that the nation receives a substantial return from taxpayer investment in the ACS because of its function in equitable distribution of federal money. The report is accompanied by a slide presentation from a Capitol Hill briefing that summarizes its main points. The report web site also includes a table listing the federal programs whose funds are guided by the ACS data, and a list of funding received in each state as well as large counties and metropolitan areas.

In March, Brookings released a report documenting the range of federal programs whose funding distribution is guided by census data.


United Kingdom May Drop Traditional Census

The United Kingdom will conduct a traditional census next year, but it may be the last of its kind, according to the British Cabinet minister in charge of the count. Francis Maude told the Daily Telegraph newspaper that there are ways to “provide better, quicker information, more frequently and cheaper.”

Britain has conducted a census each decade since 1801, with the exception of 1941 during World War II. But Maude said the count is out of date by the time its results are published the following year. He noted that 1.5 million households did not fill out census forms during the 2001 census, making the count incomplete. Maude suggested that one alternative would be to use administrative data in government records or from private databases to assemble a population count, and that it might be done more frequently than once each decade.

The government’s Office of National Statistics has issued a statement that changes to the traditional census are being considered as part of a project called Beyond 2011, whose missions is to “develop a range of options for the production of population statistics beyond the 2011 Census. It is considering how a number of different data sources could be used to produce the key information needed to support effective decision-making.” Read more


Canada’s Chief Statistician Quits Over Census Changes

The head of Statistics Canada has resigned over the government’s decision to drop the mandatory long form in the 2011 Census, stating that the voluntary survey that will be instituted in its place is not an adequate substitute. The resignation statement by Munir A. Sheikh declined to explain what advice he and his agency gave the government about its plan.

The Conservative government’s announcement last month that the long form would be dropped from the census after 35 years of use provoked criticism from Canada’s three opposition parties, and legislators plan to hold hearings next week on the issue. The Cabinet minister who oversees the census, Tony Clement, issued a statement after Sheikh’s resignation reaffirming the decision to drop the long form “because we do not believe Canadians should be forced, under threat of fines, jail, or both, to divulge extensive private and personal information.”


Former Census Director: Rewrite Race Question

Many Americans were puzzled or irritated by the questions about race and Hispanic ethnicity on the 2010 Census form. Some did not want to declare a race, others did not think they fit the available categories and still others wondered why the government should ask the question. Kenneth Prewitt, who directed the Census Bureau during the 2000 Census, also has concerns about the way the government asks about race and ethnicity. The race question on the census form “does not work well and we can do better,” he writes in a commentary in USA Today.

Instead of the two questions about race and Hispanic ethnicity, Prewitt suggests that the next census ask the following: “What national origin, ethnicity, tribe, language group or ancestry do you consider yourself to be? (List all those important to you.)”  This question, he says, could be paired with others on immigration status: “Where were you born, and where were your parents born?”

Prewitt, professor of public affairs at Columbia University, says that a race question must be asked in order to shed light on disparities and discrimination based on color, ancestry or immigrant status, “but only if we draw the portrait more carefully than that produced by the 2010 Census.” He argues that his suggested questions allow people to define their own identities (which can include multiple races) and at the same time allow statisticians to group people into categories for comparison purposes. The immigration question, when paired with the race question, “tells us how immigrant status interacts with national origin, ethnicity or language group” so it can be seen how well newcomers are faring, he writes.

The race and ethnicity questions on the census form were assembled in response to specific demands over time, he argues, rather than being carefully designed to “provide information relevant to the public purposes that justify asking the questions in the first place.” (For additional background, see this history of racial categorization in the census and this history of counting Hispanics.)

Prewitt, who has a long-standing research interest in racial classification, also has argued his case in academic journals (such as this article from Daedalus in 2005 that suggests a less dramatic rewrite of the race question). He is writing a book about race and racial classification.


Census 2010: Quality Indicators Thus Far

As the 2010 Census information-gathering phase winds down and the Census Bureau turns to quality-checking and data-processing, Director Robert Groves offered some statistics at a recent operational briefing to assess how the national count has gone thus far. One indicator, the quality of the address list, appears to have improved since the 2000 Census.  Another, the share of proxy interviews–information obtained from neighbors and building managers instead of the householders themselves–has worsened.

The foundation of a good census is having a complete list of addresses because Americans are counted at their homes or the other places they are living. The quality of the address list is important in aiding census-takers who head out on follow-up visits to people who did not return their mailed-out questionnaires.

During the recent non-response follow-up operation, Groves said, census-takers found fewer non-existent addresses on their rounds in 2010 than their counterparts had in 2000. In 2000, 6 million non-existent addresses were deleted from the list because census-takers could not find them. In 2010, 4.1 million were deleted. During follow-up visits, census-takers also are supposed to look for addresses that are not on the official list, so they can be added. In 2010, Groves said, “we had fewer adds proportionately” compared with 2000, although he said this is not as much of a “hard quality indicator” because it could mean that census-takers did not follow procedures for including new addresses.

On another quality measure, Groves said census-takers who were trying to collect information at addresses from which census forms were not received had to rely more heavily on neighbors and building managers than was the case during the 2000 Census. In 2010, about 22% of interviews were from proxies, not from the householders themselves, compared with 17% in 2000.  This is of concern because proxy data traditionally have been less accurate and complete than information that people provide about themselves.  Groves said “this fits the expectation we had with regard to the cooperation of the American public.” Some people were never home during repeated visits by census-takers; others refused to provide information about themselves.

In addition, Groves said census operations so far have been on schedule and “significantly under budget.” Previously, census officials had reported a better-than-expected mail participation rate–72% of occupied households returned their forms, the same as in the 2000 Census.

Getting under way now are a series of quality-check operations “to make sure we’ve gotten it right,” in Groves’ words. This page will have more information on these operations in a later posting.