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.
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