The next census is still a few years away in 2020, but the U.S. Census Bureau is already hard at work on preparing to count the more than 325 million people in the United States. The census is one of the few democratic norms that’s required by the Constitution, and the data collected has wide-ranging uses.
The normally routine process has been disrupted this year by Trump administration, which is pushing for the reintroduction of a question about citizenship. As you may have heard, there’s a debate going on about whether this question is appropriate, and whether the resource-strapped Census Bureau will have time to implement it before 2020.
Jennifer Van Hook, Roy C. Buck Professor of Sociology and Demography at Penn State, served on the Census Advisory Board from 2007 to 2011 and is an expert on how census data is collected, how it’s evaluated, and how it’s used.
She talks about the process for creating and testing new questions, the implications of asking about citizenship, and some of the ways you might not realize census data is used. For more on Jenny’s research in this area, read her recent piece in The Conversation.
[6:06] What do you see as the role the census plays in a democracy?
Jennifer: It is fundamental for a representative democracy. The United States was actually the first nation in the world to require that a census be conducted. This was done because they wanted to distribute power according to population within the states. The number of representatives each state gets in the House is proportionate to the population. Therefore, the census is very important.
[7:28] In addition to determining representation in Washington, what are some of the other purposes of the census?
Jennifer: One of the other uses is the civil rights legislation that has been passed since the 60’s. This helps tell us if certain groups are under represented. This information can show us if certain groups are being discrimintated against within society. The people conducting the census are expected to be non-partisan. Therefore, they collect the information while not saying anything about the data. They simply give it to the public because they want to stay out of the politics of this information.
[9:20] In the era of “fake news” and people being able to cherry pick their facts, how will the census be viewed and used going forward?
Jennifer: The staff that conducts the census takes considerable measures to strip the data of any political leanings. One way this is done is by having multiple authors for all reports to prevent any one bias from impacting how data is reported. They also work in large teams with multiples checks for each bit of data collected.
[10:40] There are reports that the there is underfunding for the census. How will the organization continue to meet its standards with this funding issue?
Jennifer: There is no set director of the census bureau. This lack of direction could cause a problem. One of the thing people have been worried about is the ability of the bureau to conduct out reach and inform people about the census. For example, many people don’t realize that the bureau can’t share its information with Ice. This is significant to share with immigrants who might fear participation in the census out of immigration police fears. This goes to the importance of building trust amongst the public to get them to participate.
[12:35] How does the bureau actually go about counting everyone in the country?
Jennifer: Everyone gets a postcard in the main informing them they have to participate. If you don’t respond to that, you might get follow up contact. This is the most expensive part of the process. If people don’t respond to the first contact, and they have to be contacted again, this is where the cost can really increase for the census process.
[13:25] How does the bureau use past experiences to improve the process?
Jennnifer: They do but it takes a lot of time. They try to improve their operation. However, this is difficult given the size of the debarment. It is difficult to turn on a time and change the way they conduct their business. Any small change takes a lot of time.
[14:30] What goes into deciding on the wording of a question for the census?
Jennifer: Every part of the question is tested. The introduction of a new question typically takes several years because of all the test to make sure people interpret the question correctly as intended. We also consider a question from the standpoint of its impact on people’s willingness to participate in the census in light of it. In terms of the citizenship question, this has become more of a hot button topic especially given the anti-immigrant rhetoric in society today. This means that the field test questions done in the past for this topic might have to be changed because we just don’t know how people will respond to it this time.
[16:37] Wilbur Ross has said that he thinks the benefit of the citizenship question will outweigh the potential risks of lower response rates. Do you agree with that?
Jennifer: No, I don’t. I don’t think the bureau has shown that this question is really necessary. Typically, questions that make the census form have to be dictated by law as being necessary. So you can’t just add questions because you think they wont’ harm the utility of the census. Every question has to be there because it is required. There is another survey called the American Community Survey. They have been collecting citizenship information for years. This data has been used to enforce the voting rights act. I’m not aware of any problems with this survey being used to gather citizenship information.
[17:50] Can you talk about how this survey differs from the census survey?
Jennifer: It is a much longer survey. The questions change from year to year. It is administered to roughly 3.5 million people every year. It provides more detailed information on an annual basis for the population. It provides us with more specific information even down to the county level.
[19:37] How is census information used to impact federal policy?
Jennifer: It is particularly useful when we need to know something about the populations health. One example would be looking at the changing life expectancy. This information wouldn’t be known without procedures like the census. It is the backbone of our federal statistical system.
[21:20] What would you say to someone about why they should participate in the census?
Jennifer: It is good to be counted because we don’t know about our population unless we measure it.