Census undercount - How does that happen?

The primary purpose of the census is to count the number of people in the United States. Each year, thousands of people are not counted for one reason or another, known as the census undercount. This results in inaccurate population estimates, which can lead to money being lost for the state. If the undercount is large enough, the state may lose a congressional district.

Mario Vargas, the Census 2010 Coordinator for Minnesota, says that people are not counted when they are sent a census form and do not return it. While this happens in every demographic, some groups are more vulnerable to undercount compared to others. Vargas says the groups that are most likely to be undercounted are ethnic minorities, immigrants, college graduates and children under the age of five. The State Demographic Center, the state agency responsible for the census, is working with several groups to make sure these groups in particular are counted.

Vargas says that children under the age of five are sometimes missed accidentally. "It's not that the parents don't love the child," he says, "its that people forget, or leave them off accidentally." Vargas says that children of divorced parents who shuttle between them are commonly missed: "One parent thinks the other one put their child on the form, as does the other one, when in fact neither of them has." Sometimes these children are included on both parents' forms and are double-counted.

Another group that Vargas says is commonly missed are "snowbirds" - citizens of Minnesota who travel south during the winter. State Demographer Tom Gillaspy says that there are approximately 160,000 snowbirds across the country. "We started publicizing the census several months ago," says Gillaspy, "just to make sure that these people knew before they went south."

Both Vargas and Gillaspy emphasize that the information on the Census form is absolutely confidential and that the Census Bureau does not share it with other government agencies. The information given by individuals is sealed by the census for 72 years, although they are compiled into larger statistical data. Assistant Attorney General Ronald H. Weich, in a letter sent two weeks ago to leaders of the congressional Asian Pacific, Black and Hispanic caucuses said that no law, even the Patriot Act, trumps the census privacy provisions.

"We are the Census, not the FBI, not the Department of Homeland Security," said Vargas. He pointed out that there is no box asking for a respondent's citizenship status. Attempts have been made in Congress to add such a question, but they have been blocked.

Last year, Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann made news by urging people to not fill out the Census because Census data was used to intern Japanese-Americans during the World War II. Specifically, it was collected under Section 1402 of the Second War Powers Act (1942), a section that was repealed in 1947.  Bachmann also claimed that the information would be given to groups such as ACORN, which at the time was helping to promote the census. ACORN was dropped as a partner last September.

Minnesota State Demographer Tom Gillaspy said that while politicizing the census is a concern that's addressed at the national level, at the state level it is not a major concern. (Many of these concerns were satirized last week by Stephen Colbert)

The census determines federal funding to states for things like building bridges, hospitals, and schools and for programs such as Medicaid and Head Start. The Census Bureau estimates that the federal government will spend $400 billion on programs that are apportioned according to census data. Mario Vargas says that Minnesota recieves about $7 billion out of that total. Vargas also says that for each person not counted, Minnesota loses $1200/year in federal funds.

According to a study by the Census Monitoring Board, in 2000, Minnesota had the lowest undercount rate at 0.29%. That is, out of all undercounted citizens, Minnesota had 0.29% of them, the lowest rate of any state. In 1990, it had the 3rd lowest at 0.45%.

The Census Bureau determines the undercount by comparing phone listings and other listings of people to its own count.

There has been a fine on the books for not filling out a census form, however Gillaspy had never heard of this fine being enforced. "The carrot is more effective than the stick," said Gillaspy. "We want to encourage people to fill out the census, not threaten them."

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Robert OConnor's picture
Robert OConnor

Robert O'Connor (oconn270 [at] gmail [dot] com) is a co-editor to 3:AM Magazine. He's also a freelance journalist, who has reported for KFAI.