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Politics And The Undercount

by Andrew Beveridge, May 01, 2001
 

New York City has more people living here than ever before. The census found eight million New Yorkers. But there were many it missed -- probably 136,000.

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We know this thanks to the science of statistics. There are now statistical ways of making up for the flaws in the physical collection of data - for the failure, in other words, of the United States Bureau of the Census to make an accurate count of each and every New Yorker.

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The science exists to adjust for this undercount. But yet again, politics has gotten in the way of science. The Bush administration has decided to leave those New Yorkers uncounted.

This is nothing new. New York City has been complaining and then litigating about the undercount for about half a century. Its 1980 lawsuit led to the federal government agreeing to monitor the outcome of the census in New York City, and adjust the results if necessary, beginning with the 1990 census.

In 1990, after the census forms had been handed in and calculated, census bureau employees went back to New York and did a meticulous recount of a large selected statistical sample of households. (over 90,000). By comparing the first set of results with the second, it was possible for the census to estimate the undercount of various geographical areas and ethnic groups in the city.

After the 1990 census, the bureau professionals recommended adjustment so the official data more accurately reflected the actual numbers of New Yorkers (and of course others who had been undercounted). But George Mossbacher blocked that recommendation. Mossbacher was the Secretary of the Department of Commerce, the agency that oversees the U.S. Census Bureau. He also happened to be the campaign manager for the presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush.

Afterward, the National Academy of Sciences and others recommended procedures to make the census more accurate. All of these efforts were frustrated by GOP Congressional leaders. Indeed, while the latest census was underway, George W. Bush, suggested that the effort was intrusive, and indicated that he might not fill out the long form if he got one.

The process itself was subject to incessant attack by right wing radio talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh.

Nevertheless, for the 2000 census, the bureau intensified its efforts to make an accurate count, launching a better-paid advertising campaign than in 1990.

An analysis of the results shows that Census 2000 was probably the most accurate census ever, and missed many fewer African Americans, Hispanics and Native American than in 1990. Yet, for all its efforts, this was at least the third census in a row in which the population of New York City was undercounted. The same statistical sampling that occurred after the 1990 census occurred again, with similar results.

However, on March 1 of this year, an internal committee of professional demographers recommended that the census not be adjusted. On March 6 Commerce Secretary Don Evans agreed with the committee and ordered only unadjusted data to be released. In a fairly astonishing replay of the circumstances surrounding the decision a decade earlier, Evans was George W. Bush's campaign manager, and recently returned from Florida where he had defended Bush's win.

Earlier, he had elbowed aside the professionals, who were supposed to make the adjustment decision. Apparently, he need not have done so.

Census 2000 did show an unexpectedly large count, especially in New York State, Washington, D.C., California, Florida and other areas with large numbers of immigrants.

However, when the bureau employees did their recount of the sample households, they determined that the unexpectedly high number should be even higher. On the other hand, estimates based upon various other demographic methods suggested that they should be lower than the number counted.

This discrepancy stopped the internal committee from recommending adjustment. It also shows why New York City lost again. The Census estimation methods mainly use only new green card recipients to count immigrants. These figures overlook all other foreigners, including those, who are in the US for study, for work, or for long term visits. They also overlook those that enter or stay on in the United States illegally. New York City is one of the major immigrant magnets, so it is in exactly such places where the estimates will be low.

The presidential appointees to the Census Monitoring Board (appointed, that is, by President Clinton), in a report released May 1, cited consultants well-regarded in demographic and statistical circles, and condemned the decision not to adjust. Meanwhile, the Congressional (in other words, Republican) members of the same board praised the Commerce Secretary's decision and called any move for adjustment partisan.

As of now the census bureau refuses to release details of the survey that was to be used to adjust, though they have admitted that many of their other methods for assuring their accuracy were seriously flawed.

So far, only the unadjusted official count has been released, and about 136,000 New Yorkers will go uncounted. This loss translates into fewer legislators representing the city in Albany and Washington, and less federal and state aid. Indeed, when one thinks of the New York City undercount over the decades, the impact is billions of dollars in aid, and an incalculable loss of political power.

Andrew A. Beveridge has taught sociology at Queens College since 1981, done demographic analyses for the New York Times since 1993, and provides expert testimony on a range of cases, including housing discrimination. The opinions expressed are his alone. 


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