NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 27, 2009

Although most of the Census effort to ensure an accurate head count next year focuses on rooting out people the government can't find, double-counting is just as much a problem, says USA Today.  A review of the 2000 Census revealed that for the first time in history, the count was actually too high.  It took two years to nail down the scope of the problem: About 10.2 million people were missed, but almost 11.6 million were counted twice.

Counting people twice distorts the demographic and geographic profile of the population.  Census counts are used to allocate federal funds, apportion seats among the states in the U.S. House of Representatives and redraw political districts.

Double-counting a white woman in Iowa who winters in Florida is as big a problem as failing to count a young black man in North Carolina.  If the Census does both, it compounds the error and creates an imbalance that ripples from local to national politics.

That's why the Census must:

  • Count everyone -- once.
  • Count everyone in the right place -- where they're living on Census day.

The two groups -- the double-counted and the uncounted -- are often polar opposites:

  • Many of the overcounted are older white women who own a home, sometimes two; others include young people who are in college, the military or prison.
  • The undercounted are more often African American and men aged 18 to 49 who don't own homes.

"We have made a lot of changes in 2010 in ways that would reduce the errors," says Daniel Weinberg, assistant director for the decennial census.

The biggest is in the Census form itself.  Instructions now specifically warn people not to include people in their households who are living separately even if they plan on returning home.  "Otherwise, they may be counted twice," the form warns.

Another change is a question that asks if people in the household sometimes live or stay somewhere else and, if so, where.  The choices include prison, college, a seasonal home or a nursing home.

Source: Haya El Naser and Paul Overberg, "U.S. making doubly sure Census isn't overcounted," USA Today, July 27, 2009.

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