NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Counting On The Census?

April 17, 2000

The Census Bureau will produce two sets of numbers for 2000: an unadjusted set based on the traditional headcount and an adjusted set based on a huge post-census sample survey. The Supreme Court has ruled that the adjusted numbers cannot be used for apportioning Congress, but may still be used for other purposes including redistricting and federal grant allocations.

Proponents of sampling maintain that large numbers of Hispanics, blacks, American Indians and Asians were missed by the traditional method in the 1990 Census, with the undercount resulting in a loss of federal funds to minorities. However, the debate over the significance of the undercount has been highly distorted, even misleading.

  • In fiscal year 1998, the General Accounting Office studied the allocation of $185 billion that relied on census figures, and found that only $449 million, or 0.33 percent of the money, would have been distributed differently as a result of adjusting the 1990 Census.
  • The reason is that population is only one of several factors in most federal grant formulas, and many programs designed to help distressed communities actually reduce funding when population increases.

Adjusting census numbers would not necessarily benefit all undercounted minorities equally. The 1990 post-census survey apparently found proportionally more Hispanics in the barrios of the Southwest than blacks in the cities of the Northeast and Midwest.

Furthermore, it is virtually certain that the complicated system used for adjustment would introduce new errors into the count. In 1990 one such error in the post-census survey (not used in the official count) added one million people to the undercount estimate, and the error went undiscovered for more than a year.

Source: Peter Skerry, "Counting on the Census?" Policy Brief No. 56, March 2000, Brookings Institution, 1775 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036, (202) 797-6000.


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