Don't Politicize the Census Bureau


The recent decision by the Obama Administation to place the Census under the control of the White House represents a danger – not only to the integrity of the process but to the underlying assumptions that drive policy in a representative democracy. It is something that smacks of the worst anti-scientific views of the far right, or the casual political manipulation of the facts one expects in places like Russia or Iran.

Let me be clear: I love the Bureau of the Census. I have been an avid consumer of its data since the second grade. I used to wait with anticipation for the decennial results – the 10 year population counts for states, counties and cities. Anyone who has spent any time on the Demographia websites knows the respect with which I treat Census data.

The United States established one of the first regular censuses and it has been conducted every 10 years since 1790. The United Kingdom followed in 1801 and France in 1807, though both nations suspended their counts during World War II.

Over the past couple of decades, the Bureau of the Census has made annual estimates widely available, so it was no longer necessary to wait for the 10 year results. This was an important step in the right direction for people interested in demographics. But, there was a more basic purpose than amusing people who make their living with numbers. As federal programs that allocate money to local jurisdictions based upon their population have become more widespread, interim annual census estimates became a necessity.

Before the interim estimates, all sorts of “cheerleading” estimates were published, like the more than 1,000,000 population estimate I discovered for Washington, DC in the 1950s (the city never exceeded 800,000 by much). The great thing about the Bureau of the Census was that you could trust the numbers.

Trust and accuracy were precisely what the framers had in mind when they wrote the regular decennial Census enumeration (count) into the US Constitution. The principal purpose, of course, was to apportion seats in the House of Representatives. A genuine democracy depends on ensuring all are represented equally and thus depends upon the integrity of its census.

Recently, however, the process has become ever more politicized. The Bureau of the Census has allowed counties, cities and other local jurisdictions to challenge their annual census estimates. The incentive, of course, is that if the challenge results in a higher population estimate (and it can be expected that no jurisdiction challenges an estimate it feels is too high), more federal money is the reward.

I became aware of the problem in watching the recently developing annual challenge ritual by the nearby city of St. Louis, which has lost more of its population than any city since the Romans sacked Carthage. No large local jurisdiction in the world, not even New Orleans, has lost as much of its population as St. Louis, which has experienced a 60 percent decline since 1950.

So not surprisingly, the city of St. Louis has become a frequent challenger. St. Louis has successfully challenged the Bureau of the Census estimate of its population five of the seven years from 2001 to 2007 (the most recent estimate). The total of additions from census challenges adds up to 43,000 people. This is a not insubstantial 12.4 percent relative to the approximately 348,000 2000 Census count for the city.

I began to wonder what the success rate was in census challenges. I asked the appropriate Bureau of the Census officials for a list of rejected challenges. The quick and polite response was “We do not have a list of the rejected challenges.” This seemed a strange answer, since the Bureau of the Census website lists all of the successful challenges. Moreover, my internet search for news stories about rejections of census challenge rejections yielded nothing.

I performed an analysis of the successful challenges posted on the internet. Approximately 200 general purpose local jurisdictions have filed challenges. Nearly 40,000 have not.

Many of the upheld challenges are in large urban cores, such as 236,000 in the city of New York and more than 100,000 in Atlanta’s core Fulton County. Among the larger jurisdictions, Fulton County added the largest to its 2000 population by challenges, at 13.5 percent.

However, the challenges are by no means limited to urban cores. Salt Lake City suburbs West Valley City, West Jordan and Sandy challenged their counts, but not core city Salt Lake City. Nearby Provo, no urban jungle, had the largest addition to its population of any jurisdiction over 100,000 population, at 15.2 percent. The Bureau of the Census missed about 2,000 residents between Skokie and Hoffman Estates, headquarters of Sears Roebuck, but not a one in nearby Chicago, which has 25 times as many people as the two suburban jurisdictions combined.

Overall, 47 jurisdictions with more than 100,000 population in 2000 have successfully challenged census estimates, many in more than one year. The total population addition from these challenges is 1.24 million, though there may be some duplication in city and county numbers. Overall, the census challenges have added a total of nearly 1,600,000 people, which is likely, with duplications, to exceed the population of two Congressional districts. All of the challenging jurisdictions combined had a population of less than 35 million in 2000, or less than 15 percent of the population.

All of this raises questions. Beyond the questions about rejected challenges, if there have been any, are fundamental questions about Bureau of the Census methods. How can it be that the Census misses by so many people? Why did it presumably miss 15 percent of the population in Provo, 3 percent in New York City and 30 percent in Bazine City, Kansas, while apparently being so accurate in the remaining 85 percent of the nation that no one was missed?

Why was the Bureau of the Census estimate so erroneous in New York, Boston and San Francisco, yet so accurate in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Phoenix, where there were no errors?

Then there is the more fundamental question – have there been any rejections?

It is possible that everything is on the “up and up” with respect to the Bureau of the Census challenge program. On the other hand, there appears to be plenty of potential for mischief, as some jurisdictions have become experts at challenging and the Bureau may find rejections difficult, given the pressure that could be received from members of Congress.

But politicization of the Census is a terrible risk. That’s why the Obama administration’s decision to move authority for the Census to the White House from the Department of Commerce is so concerning. It is hard to imagine a function of government so crucial to the genuine working of democracy becoming subject to the whims of people like White House chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel – or down the road to a similarly partisan figure in the other party, like a Karl Rove.

The good news is that a bill introduced by New York Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney would assure the census’s integrity. Last year, she introduced the “Restoring the Integrity of American Statistics Act of 2008,” with co-sponsors Henry Gonzales of Texas, Henry Waxman of California and William Clay of Missouri. Congresswoman Maloney’s bill would remove the Bureau of the Census from the Department of Commerce and establish it as an independent federal agency, insulated from the political process. According to the Congresswoman:

This action will be a clear signal to Americans that the agency they depend upon for unbiased monthly economic data as well as the important decennial portrait of our nation is independent, fair, and protected from interference

The bill has been endorsed by all seven living former directors of the Bureau of the Census, appointed by Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and both Bushes.

This is the direction we need to go. The Administration has made much of its commitment to science and open inquiry. Preserving the sanctity of the census process would seem to confirm that commitment. In contrast, putting it under the control of White House political operatives represents a brazen act of political gamesmanship and a shameful turn in the wrong direction. It is to be hoped that the rising political firestorm and the recent withdrawal of Senator Judd Gregg from consideration for the post of Commerce Secretary might lead to a policy reversal.

Successful Census Estimate Challenges: 2001 to 2007
State Jurisdiction
2000 Census Popuation
Total Population Added in Census Challenges
OVER 100,000
NY New York City                   8,008,278                 236,120 2.9%
TX Houston                    1,954,848                   84,364 4.3%
NY Suffolk County                   1,419,369                   58,503 4.1%
NY Nassau County                   1,334,544                   46,528 3.5%
TX Dallas                    1,188,580                   25,873 2.2%
MI Detroit                        951,270                   47,728 5.0%
NY Westchester County                       923,459                     6,912 0.7%
MD Montgomery County                       873,341                   10,678 1.2%
AZ Pima County                       843,746                   29,504 3.5%
GA Fulton County                       816,006                 109,983 13.5%
CA San Francisco County                       776,733                   34,209 4.4%
MD Baltimore                        651,154                   75,410 11.6%
NJ Monmouth County                       615,301                     5,891 1.0%
WI Milwaukee                        596,974                   29,424 4.9%
MA Boston                        589,141                   51,540 8.7%
DC District of Columbia                       572,059                   31,528 5.5%
TN Davidson County                       545,524                   32,152 5.9%
LA Orleans Parish                       484,674                   48,989 10.1%
LA Jefferson Parish                       455,466                   16,819 3.7%
GA Atlanta                        416,474                   12,440 3.0%
UT Utah County                       368,536                   25,814 7.0%
FL Miami                        362,470                   14,943 4.1%
MO St. Louis                        348,189                   43,012 12.4%
OH Cincinnati                        331,285                   22,582 6.8%
OH Toledo                        313,619                   21,822 7.0%
NY Rockland County                       286,753                     3,208 1.1%
TX Lubbock County                       242,628                     1,678 0.7%
VA Norfolk                        234,403                     9,720 4.1%
VA Arlington County                       189,453                   15,634 8.3%
NC Winston-Salem                        185,775                     8,184 4.4%
TN Knoxville                        173,890                     4,317 2.5%
MA Worcester                        172,648                     1,555 0.9%
AL Huntsville                        158,216                         424 0.3%
TN Chattanooga                        155,554                   13,103 8.4%
MA Springfield                        152,082                     1,404 0.9%
VA Alexandria                        128,283                   11,687 9.1%
SD Sioux Falls                        123,975                     5,848 4.7%
NY Jefferson County                       111,738                   11,631 10.4%
IL Springfield                        111,454                     1,020 0.9%
WA Bellevue                        109,569                     4,442 4.1%
UT West Valley                        108,896                     6,011 5.5%
UT Provo                        105,166                   16,003 15.2%
PA Erie                        103,717                     2,608 2.5%
Subtotal                 28,595,240             1,241,245 4.3%
Smaller Jurisdictions                 345,025
All Jurisdictions             1,586,270

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris. He was born in Los Angeles and was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley. He is the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.

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Could these errors be catalysts on major legislation?

Apologies if Wendell already pointed this out, but there seem to be two other problems here:

(1) What about all the other small- and mid-sized cities who didn't challenge? The average change of WC's data set is over 5%, so if we had fewer challenges in smaller cities, there could be significant errors nationwide. Also seems possible that there would be a reporting bias toward large cities, who may have labor to spare to take care of it.

(2) Think any cities are challenging in the opposite direction; saying they have fewer? Yes, it's less likely, but combining these two possible biases, urban--and more liberal--areas could conceivably be undeservedly overrepresented by 5 or 10 percent. Doesn't sound like much, but if districting lines up with that, we're talking as many as 44 votes in the House and 10 in the Senate. Probably a lot less since my numbers are worst-case scenario, but even if it were just 4 VOTES in the House--that would have been enough to sink Obamacare! Something to think about as we surrender to the welfare state.

“if the nation’s premier

“if the nation’s premier statistical agency were placed under White House direction the danger to public trust would be enormous.” lol – too late Einstein.

That is a more profound effect than the political power grab. Americans can’t trust once reliable institutions.

We’ve seen the politicalization of science and education already and I don’t trust a damn thing coming from the government. If the FDA says a drug is safe you have to wonder if thats based on honest science. If the DOJ puts out crime stats you have to question their method of acquiring them. Remember the Clinton years? White on hispanic crimes were just that. Hispanic on white crimes were reported as white on white.

This creates suspicion. That eventually becomes distrust and a very unhealthy nation.

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Thank you Wendell Cox.

It makes sense to "remove the Bureau of the Census from the Department of Commerce and establish it as an independent federal agency, insulated from the political process."

I think it makes sense to have a board overseeing the Bureau of the Census that would have half the members of the board chosen by Democratic Senators and half the members of the board chosen by Republican Senators.

Our country may someday want to Amend the Constitution to have the Census done every 5 years.


Ken Stremsky

Actually Ken the Census

Actually Ken the Census Bureau already has congressional oversight via the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and this will not change with the Obama proposal. Furthermore, if Republicans do not comprise half of the House there is no reason that they should comprise half of the Committee. Political representation has to be earned, not granted through fiat. Based on the Republican Party's performance over the past 8 years the only thing they've earned is their minority party status.