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Counting America

The U.S. Has taken a census every 10 years since 1790, as the Constitution requires. So why is the 2010 census sparking such intense debate?

By Patricia Smith

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With an army of 1.4 million census takers and a budget of $15 billion (yes, billion), the 2010 census is being billed as the largest peacetime mobilization in American history. Planning for the census has been going on for 10 years, and Washington is spending $340 million on a national advertising campaign in 28 languages.

The goal of all this time, money, and effort? Simply to get as many people as possible to fill out the 120 million questionnaires that will begin landing in Americans' mailboxes later this month.

A national head count may sound like a pretty dry exercise, but the census actually has an enormous impact on our daily lives. It determines everything from how many Congressmen your state gets to whether a new Gap opens near your house and which channels cable companies offer in your area.

With so much at stake, it's no surprise that the census generates a good deal of controversy, particularly on the issue of who gets to be counted, where people are counted, and who the census misses in its tally.

It all goes back to the Constitution, which requires the federal government to count the nation's residents every 10 years. Officials say that this year's 10-question form, among the shortest ever, should take about 10 minutes to complete. For the first time, 13 million bilingual questionnaires (in English and Spanish) will be distributed in areas with large numbers of Spanish speakers. Everyone will receive the same questions about age, race, gender, and whether the respondent sometimes lives elsewhere.

"It is a time for all of us, especially social, political, and religious leaders around the country to get the word out that everyone needs to participate," says Census Bureau director Robert Groves.

The census has a huge political impact. It not only determines how many seats states get in the House of Representatives, it also determines how many votes they get in the Electoral College, the mechanism for electing Presidents: Electoral votes are determined by each state's total number of seats in both houses of Congress. So Indiana, for example, has nine seats in the House of Representatives, and two Senators, like every state, for a total of 11 electoral votes.

The census is also used to distribute some $450 billion in federal aid—for everything from schools to highways—using population-driven formulas. It also provides the basis for calculating many economic statistics like the poverty and unemployment rates.

All this helps explain why Republicans and Democrats have long disagreed over how to conduct the census. Almost everyone acknowledges that the traditional method—mail-back surveys and census workers knocking on doors to follow up—fails to count millions of Americans. The question is what to do about it.

Democrats argue that the solution is to use statistical sampling to extrapolate figures for those who don't get counted. Since minorities, immigrants, the poor, and the homeless are more likely to be undercounted—and to vote Democratic—such sampling would presumably benefit Democrats. Republicans, on the other hand, argue that statistical sampling is unreliable and that the Constitution mandates an actual count.

"Power and money are linked to how many people live where," says former Census Bureau director Ken Prewitt, who is now a public-policy professor at Columbia University. That's why, he says, the census is inevitably a blend of science and politics.

"I reluctantly have concluded," Prewitt has written, "that both of America's major political parties would, up to a point, sacrifice census accuracy for partisan advantage."

California Up, New York Down

As the population has shifted around the country in the last few decades, political power has moved away from the North and East toward the South and West, where states like Florida, Texas, and California have experienced rapid growth. Since the presidential election of 1948, for example, New York has dropped from 47 electoral votes to the 31 it now has, while California has more than doubled, from 25 to 55.

William D. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, has analyzed some data ahead of the 2010 census and predicted which states will likely be the winners and losers this year. He notes, however, that the recession has slowed down migration around the country to the lowest rates since World War II, and that will likely reduce the number of congressional seats that shift from state to state.

But the census is about more than just political clout. The demographic information gathered (not the individual responses) is available to the public, and thousands of companies use it to help them determine what products to sell, where to sell them, and how to market them.

When Wal-Mart tries to figure out where to open their next store, they're probably analyzing census numbers. When McDonald's decides to introduce a new breakfast sandwich, they're likely using census data to determine which parts of the country are most likely to buy it. When the Nielsen ratings tell us that at the height of American Idol's popularity, almost 11 percent of Americans were watching it, they're using census data.

"To marketing-research firms and small-business owners, the census data is crucially important," says Eric Bradlow of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. "Its impact on the business world is huge."

The 2010 census form is much simpler and shorter than in recent decades, when multi-page questionnaires asked lots of detailed questions about things like income, jobs, commute times, and marital status.

"There was a lot of political fallout from people saying the census was too intrusive and that it asked too many personal questions," says Frey, the Brookings demographer.

Where Do College Students Live?

As always, there's a debate about what makes someone a resident of a particular state or town.

If you're a student from Florida who's going to college in Michigan, in which state should you be counted? If you're in prison, are you a resident of the town where the prison is located, or where you live before prison? In 2000, Utah fell 857 people short of receiving an extra seat in the House of Representatives. It's not surprising that this time the state is arguing that 11,000 Mormons from Utah who are temporarily living overseas as missionaries should be counted as residents.

This year, the Census Bureau faces special challenges. How should it count the hundreds of thousands of people from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast still displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005? Should they be counted where they are now, or where they're from (and where many still own homes)? The home-foreclosure crisis has also displaced millions of people, making it harder for the census to locate them.

Black and Hispanic leaders have particular concerns about making sure their communities—both historically undercounted—get counted fairly. The Census Bureau estimates that 4.5 million people (mostly blacks and Hispanics) were missed in the last census, in 2000. (At the same time, there was an overcount of 1.3 million people, due mostly to duplicate counts of affluent whites with multiple residences.)

"The count is a political-empowerment tool, so any community that's undercounted is disempowered politically," says Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League.

Hispanic communities have traditionally had many people who fear participating in the census—both illegal immigrants who fear deportation and legal immigrants who come from countries where governments frequently use information against their citizens. In response, many Hispanic leaders are working to reassure people and encourage participation.

"The census is what gives certain key players and institutions a reason for looking at our community," says Angelo Falcón, head of the National Institute for Latino Policy. "In the Latino community, we have very high poverty rates, so we don't have economic clout in the form of political contributions. So what becomes important is our sheer numbers—of voters and of consumers."

In the Vault

It's illegal for the Census Bureau to give other government agencies information on individuals; punishments for violating these rules include hefty fines and jail time. The actual census forms are locked away in a vault and kept confidential for 72 years, after which they're made available to the public for use in genealogical searches.

"The Census Bureau doesn't care about people; it cares about statistics," says Prewitt, the former Census Bureau director. "A statistical agency is very different than a program agency, which needs to know about people."

The most expensive part of the census is hiring workers to go door-to-door to follow up on people who haven't mailed back their questionnaires. For every additional 1 percent of the population that responds by mail, the government saves $85 million in follow-up costs, census officials say. That's why the census is spending so much on advertising to encourage people to mail back those forms.

"The three mantras of this campaign are: It's easy, it's important, and it's safe," says census official Kelly Lowe. Prewitt says the census is critical because you can't really govern a nation like the United States effectively unless you know who you're governing.

"Without the census," he says, "we would have a very, very inefficient government."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, March 1, 2010)