News Column

Census Budget Bigger Than Ever, But Some Officials Predict a Miscount

January/February Issue

Rob Kuznia -- HispanicBusiness Magazine

Census Budget Bigger Than Ever, But Some Officials Predict a Miscount

The national economy might be in the doldrums, but the 2010 Census budget is bigger than ever.

At about $15 billion, the outlay for the once-a-decade event is nearly three times the amount of the Census budget in 2000. Still, prominent experts predict that the 2010 Census will overlook many more people than the one in 2000, which undercounted the U.S. population by millions.

How can this be? The short answer is this: The culprits are partisan politics and the challenge of counting illegal immigrants. The Census count is used in determining the distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars to states based on population. Business owners, activists, residents, and elected officials stand to win – or lose – depending on the outcome and accuracy of the endeavor.

Clara Rodriguez, professor of sociology at Fordham University, said this year's Census political debates are heating up. "There's always been a lot of activity around this, but that activity in the past has been in the background, not at the forefront," said Ms. Rodriguez, author of the 2000 book, "Changing Race: Latinos, the Census and the History of Ethnicity in the United States."

"Now it's much more in the open," she said. "I think more and more people are realizing how important the Census is." Some of the fights are fiercely partisan; others are academic. But as the political battles rage on, an important scientific question hangs in the balance: How many people is the count missing? According to Census estimates, the 2000 count missed 1 percent of the population.

But this figure probably understates the true extent of the miscount. Kenneth Prewitt, head of the U.S. Census count in 2000, told HispanicBusiness Magazine that the miscount was exacerbated by how whites were actually over-counted. This, he said, is because whites were more likely than minorities to have two homes, leaving open the possibility that the spouses at each home might have filled out a form. The result, he said, is that the gap between the white count and the minority count is about 3 percent wider than it probably really is.

Despite this year's funding boost, Mr. Prewitt, a public aff airs professor at Columbia University who is also serving as a consultant to the Obama administration for the 2010 Census, predicts this year's count will miss even more people.

"I think it will be very hard for this Census to be as accurate as the last one," he said. Mr. Prewitt attributes this largely to the skyrocketing population of illegal immigrants, which shot up from an estimated 8 million in 2000 to 12 million in 2008. He said he doubts the Census will count more than half of that amount.

"That's a hard population to count," he said. "And they have every reason to be suspicious of the government, because of the raids and so forth."

What's more, he said, "the political environment with respect to the undocumented is worse than it was in 2000."

Add to this all the political debate already swirling around the Census, and it's easy to see how the science can get lost in a fog.

President Barack Obama's picks for Commerce Secretary – which oversees the Census Bureau – and the Census director have sparked outcry from Republicans and Democrats alike. Also, this year immigration advocates have turned against each other. On one side, a national coalition of Latino evangelical clergy members is urging undocumented residents to boycott the Census to spur immigration reform. On the other, politicians and activists say this will serve only to hurt the immigrants themselves. As for the actual numbers, Census officials believe that the 2010 count will show 306 million Americans, 46 million — or 15 percent — of whom are Hispanics. That's up from 281 million Americans in the 2000 tally, in which about 35 million people — or 12.5 percent — identified themselves as Hispanic.

In the long run, the U.S. Census Bureau also expects to see the Hispanic population rise to between 21 and 31 percent by 2050, at which point, it is widely believed, non-minority whites — who currently make up two-thirds of the population — will no longer constitute a majority.

The Census count will have huge ramifications for major metropolitan areas. The city of Los Angeles, for instance, claims it loses $20 million a year because of people missed by the last count. In addition, the results determine how to divvy up the 435 legislators in the House of Representatives.

A case in point: After the 2000 Census, states such as California, Texas, Arizona, and Florida all gained lawmakers, while states like Connecticut, Chicago, Ohio, and Michigan lost them. A crucial wild card in all these high-stakes considerations is the degree to which the Census can count the people in the shadows. As a result, the clergy coalition's call for a boycott is a big deal. The helmsman of the quest, the Rev. Miguel Rivera, said that his call has already reached the ears of at least a million undocumented residents.

Last year, the reverend tried to use the Census as a bargaining chip for immigration reform.

The idea was to browbeat Congress into passing immigration reform before March, when people will begin filling out their Census forms in earnest. If Congress didn't take up the issue, he'd fl ip the switch for the boycott. "It's a very radical position," he admitted. Clearly, this won't be happening, and so the Rev. Rivera — a self-described conservative who in November 2008 voted for Republican presidential nominee John Mc- Cain — is calling on members to boycott. "We are trying to avoid having more families be separated," he told Hispanic- Business Magazine. "What we are doing is empowering them."

Congressman Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from the Tucson, Ariz., area whose very seat came into existence in 2003 as a result of the last Census, expressed his displeasure with the movement. "It is foolish and narrow minded, and it is a total disservice to what has been the tradition and the push to get everyone counted in this country," he said. "I would suggest those kinds of calls for abstinence from the Census process be completely ignored."

In the meantime, Hispanic groups have been trying to counteract Rivera's efforts by making direct appeals to Hispanic evangelicals. In December, the National Association of Latino Elected Officials began distributing a controversial poster invoking the biblical Christmas story of Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus urging people to participate.

The poster said the holy family traveled to Jesus' birthplace in Bethlehem to take part in a census.

Last year also saw the reawakening of some old partisan battles. For all the complexity of these debates, a simple theme usually prevails: Republicans generally favor methods that count fewer people in dense urban areas, and Democrats generally prefer the opposite. Last year, President Obama's pick for Commerce Secretary – U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg, a Republican from New Hampshire – infuriated Democrats and Hispanic advocacy groups. They noted

that as Commerce Secretary, Mr. Gregg would oversee the same Census Bureau whose budget he repeatedly tried to slash during the 1990s.

Mr. Gregg wound up withdrawing his name, citing irreconcilable differences over Mr. Obama's stimulus package. The post is now held by Gary Locke, former governor of Washington.

Then, in April, Mr. Obama riled the Republican side of the aisle. This time, it was for his selection on the Census Bureau director: University of Michigan Professor Robert Groves, a former high-ranking statistician for the bureau.

Republicans hold Groves suspect for his idea in 1990 to statistically adjust the Census to make up for an undercount. The Obama administration has tried to lay the debate to rest by saying there are no current plans to use sampling methods. In any case, this year's struggles show that the Census is not just a dispassionate headcount. To the dismay of many Census officials, it's increasingly becoming politicized. And as observers know, politics can be the poison pill that kills the quest to ferret out the truth.

Source: (c) 2010. All rights reserved.

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