What We Can Learn from the (Inaccurate) Census
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What We Can Learn from the (Inaccurate) Census

In Which Our Columnist Reveals His Inner Wonk

Terry H. Schwadron

Terry H. Schwadron

Admittedly, I like data. For me, they are the evidence in the trial.

You get a much better idea of the baseball game in the box score than in the final score.

You get a better understanding of unemployment by looking at the original Bureau of Labor Statistics report than at the overall rate.

And you can move beyond emotion to the facts through sifting through trial evidence.

All of which brings us to the topline U.S. Census reports released Monday. Summaries show that the nation’s population growth has slowed over the last 10 years, and that a few Congressional seats will be shifted. As soon as state legislators can legally do so  more South and West states that have voted Republican in the past but are starting to show purple roots will be favored.

The Census should be a source of learning for us to understand more about who we are.

Besides apportioning power and proportion of federal funds, however, the Census should be a source of learning for us to understand more about who we are. The really interesting demographics that are yet to be released may show a much richer view of change than this topline.

And, like any compilation of records, the fundamental question of data collections like the Census is whether they represent good data – especially since pandemic, a series of natural disasters, immigration limits and border crossings and the growth of estimated population counts all have had a deleterious effect on the accuracy of the decennial count.

Do you think New York State is going to roll over with a loss of a Congressional seat over a reported difference of 89 people in its count during a year in which Census workers did not go house to house? (An assessment of undercounts and overcounts is due in December.)

Naturally, accuracy should matter, since the data inform what policies we adopt as a country. If we are an aging nation, need we tilt more resources toward eldercare, for example?

If we don’t have enough people to sustain economic growth, might we have a different, more liberal view of immigration, legal and not, for another?

 What We Know

There are more Americans than 10 years ago, but the rate of growth is the lowest of recent decades. As of last April 1, 2020, we have 331.5 million Americans, an increase of 7.4% since 2010,  the lowest rate of expansion since the 1930s, the Great Depression. Statisticians see this drop as part of a longer-term trend, tied to aging, decreased fertility rates, particularly among whites, and lagging immigration.

In dozen states, including Texas, Florida, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada, those self-identifying as Hispanic accounted for about half the gains.

And we easily see from data maps there has been movement to the South and West, as well as to Washington, D.C.

Of course, the attention, as usual, immediately is on partisan politics rather than on the broader image projected for the country.

So, we’re told, Texas, Florida, Colorado and Montana will add seats in Congress that come from decreased counts in New York and, for the first time, California – along with federal funds that follow the same pattern. Rhode Island, which has been losing population for decades, will keep its two seats.

If you wanted to draw one political conclusion, it might be that Washington, D.C., continues to draw more and more government employees and lobbyists – growth of the most contentious business in the nation.

Here’s the part I found interesting: “In a preliminary report on quality metrics released, Census Bureau demographers said the initial population counts from the 2020 Census were ‘generally aligned with benchmark data’ and added that their analysis should not be taken as ‘an assessment of the accuracy or reasonableness of the 2020 Census results.’ They said further assessments would follow.”

That’s data-speak for less-than-full trust in what’s been put out there.

As Commerce secretary launching this Census effort, Wilbur Ross, at Donald Trump’s behest, tried to get a citizenship question included. That would discourage undocumented individuals from reporting.

There were other efforts, federal and state, in voting rolls as well as Census counts to avoid counting prison populations or universities. The coronavirus pandemic alone prompted relocations and got in the way of the actual count. The Pew Research Center says 5 percent of U.S. adults said they moved because of the pandemic.

In New York, where I live, officials were practically begging residents to return mail Census forms since responses were way, way short of 100 percent.

You don’t have to be a demographer to understand that small changes in counting techniques can affect the bottom-line numbers.

Heeding the Trends

The biggest effect we should be noticing is that we will be running out of workers – a trend already being reported by big employers. The Census is as much a mirror of Trump policies to halt immigration as it is later decisions to marry and have fewer children. We also have seen estimates of life expectancy dropping in recent years, fueled by suicides, drug overdoses and diseases, including 547,000 Covid deaths.

These trends also spell a need for a review of health policies and Social Security, as well as immigration. We’re growing old people, and just how we will support the requirements of the workplace and extended benefits is unclear. That should be the value of studying demographics.

Also murky is just what these topline numbers say about race, about the nature of cities, about the need for services in areas away from cities. We expect those numbers to show faster growth of non-whites, for example, which seems at odds with the growth of states that have traditionally voted Republican. It sounds like a formula for a heavy season of gerrymandering to match the anti-voter rights legislation we’ve witnessed this year in most states.

We have the constant beat of politics in the Census results. Actually, as Washington Post politics writer Aaron Blake notes, it was surprising that we saw seven states shift seats rather than 10, most moving from blue states to redder states. The biggest winners were smaller states: Montana not only gains a seat in Congress but an Electoral College vote. Moving seats to states where Republicans control the legislature that draws voting districts will have an obvious advantage to the GOP. But in states like Texas, there also has been growth among Democratic voters. The Cook Political Report estimates the shifts are worth about 3.5 seats which, if no other seat shifted in the coming midterm election, would put the House near-even, Blake reported.

I’d say the safe forecast is for more partisan bickering at every level of political behavior, including a tighter Electoral College vote in 2024.

Featured image: By Norman Rockwell

April 28, 2021