July-August 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 6

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From the Executive Officer

Quantitatively Hard Science: Counting Us

The first U.S. census was in 1790 and every decade since, as required by Article I, Section 2, of the Constitution of the United States. Decennial counts of the nation’s residents (citizen and non-citizen) are conducted primarily to determine the serious matter of how many of the 435 U.S. House of Representative seats will be allocated to each of the 50 states to achieve fair representation. The Census count of April 2010 is practically upon us.

sally hillsman
Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive

States control the process of aligning their voting districts in accordance with the law that requires delineating fair boundaries so that the power of political groups within congressional districts is equal relative to others. Sociologists, like other quantitatively and socially adept observers, spend considerable energy assessing the actual political outcomes of this process each decade. But voting power is not the only impact of Census numbers today because they also drive the flow of $300 billion in federal dollars to states and communities, supporting everything from education and housing to infrastructure and welfare. (See the census article of this issue on Census-related jobs.)

Politics, Scientific Leadership & the National Interest

With so much at stake each decade, politics have always been center stage. In 1790, slaves (until the 14the Amendment) were counted as only partial residents and Native Americans were not counted at all. Ever since open and behind-the-scenes political negotiating in Congress emerged like clockwork every decade, beginning before the ink is dry on Census reports from the just-completed count. Such political maneuvering has significant impact on the funding, conduct, and accuracy of every Census. For a quick view of news items about the long, painful legislative history of hostile amendments to the Census budget and management, frequently reflecting mistrust from both parties about the potential for damaging under-counts or over-counts, see The Census Project website at www.thecensusproject.org/.

Of significant consequence to the upcoming Census is the absence of a confirmed U.S. Census Bureau director as of late June, which leaves the bureau leaderless 10 months before the 2010 count starts. Sociologist Robert M. Groves is President Obama’s nominee for this critical post. Grove’s completed his largely uneventful Senate hearings weeks ago, but his final confirmation is caught up in a larger political context: given the outcome of recent elections, there are some who don’t think a really successful Census count is in their interests. Groves’ hearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs provided only a fig leaf of cover for this dawdling over final confirmation. There was some needless political controversy about census methodology—"needless" because Census must abide by the 1999 Supreme Court ruling that statistical sampling cannot be used to redress under-counting of even difficult-to-reach populations, and Groves has firmly stated his intention to follow this course for 2010 and 2020. (See June 24, 2009, Associated Press article, "Locke Urges End to GOP Block on Census Nominee.")

Structural Obstacles

Not all citizens understand the potential personal value of completing Census forms or responding to Census interviewers. Some are understandably skeptical when the federal government seeks data about their household composition. (While individual fears may be exaggerated, not all fears by groups are unfounded.) Structural impediments also abound in counting difficult populations such as the homeless or migrant workers. As if such bottom-up challenges to accuracy were not daunting enough for Census counters, the long history of top-down obstacles to adequate funding threaten each Census. There is a stalwart advocacy community (in which ASA participates) that fights tooth-and-nail every decade from outside the government to support the funding necessary to ensure a well prepared and accurate count. (See June 9, 2009, New York Times editorial, "Census Follies, Continued.")

It is never an easy battle. The Census Bureau is buried within the $14-billion U.S. Department of Commerce, which is comprised of an assortment of unrelated agencies and bureaus with disparate missions (e.g., NIST, NOAA, Patents/Trademarks). Census also has an anomalous 10-year budget that rises dramatically years before the actual April count. This makes its budget unique (and vulnerable) among federal agencies. Commerce’s "catch-all" functions degrade this Cabinet-level department’s ability to fight off adverse congressional budgetary actions, especially in fiscally difficult times.

Some stakeholders are pushing to establish the Census Bureau as an independent agency as a means to increase its visibility in top-level policymaking arenas and to reduce its budgetary vulnerability to legislators raiding its annual appropriations. The Census Director is a presidential appointee, so some advocacy groups also have suggested making that appointment a fixed, six-year term (like some other science positions in government) to reduce the perception of and possibilities for partisan mischief.

Counting on Science

Business, government, citizens, and residents of all modern nations count on census data. All elements of society can best plan for the future if they have accurate and current data on their nation’s population size, geographic distribution, and key characteristics (e.g., age, gender, and racial/ethnic composition, education, per capita income, mortality/morbidity rates). The U.S. Census Bureau’s mission is to count the U.S. population with accuracy and efficiency.

Census also is responsible for statistical innovations such as the American Community Survey (ACS), designed to replace the decennial Census "long form" and to be a basic tool for social and business research in the United States. ACS, covered in several past Footnotes issues, is an ongoing nationwide annual survey of certain metropolitan areas that even Fortune 500 businesses identify as essential to efficient planning and development in the commercial sector. Because its data are more detailed and timely than the decennial Census, it is strategically more useful for business, community, government decision making and scientific research.

In an ideal world, conducting a human population count would be like an ecological or ethological count of a particular animal species in its natural habitat. Meticulous methods and strategies would be established and scientists would return from the field with a reasonably realistic assessment. Of course, even such scientific endeavors are social phenomena: an ethologist counting the population of a federally protected, endangered species quickly learns about the politics of counting animals, especially if they inhabit economically valuable geography. Counting U.S. residents similarly touches sensitive nerves that transmit directly to our nation’s political nerve center, Congress.

Within this context, science continues its efforts to deliver decennial and other products that are good for people, good for business, and good for knowledge building. Every decade, Congress and the President gradually increase the annual Census budget as more resources are required to meet each year’s more costly, complex, and time-consuming tasks. To the uninformed, these increases may seem to be government excess and they are a tempting target to be skimmed or redirected for non-Census purposes. Appropriations amendments emerge like crabgrass. While they are often defeated, the process is not without significant and endless defensive work by Census advocates. The nation’s taxpayers, their states and localities pay extra for the costs of the battle and sometimes pay even more dearly for the increased potential of an inaccurate count.

The House has signed off on Census’s FY 2010 budget, but the full Congress needs to vote the final appropriations bills by October 1, the start of the fiscal year. It also needs to vote on the Census Director immediately. We can only hope that the Bureau will have the resources Americans need to count on. logo

Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA. She can be reached by email at executive.office@asanet.org.


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