NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Census Bureau Decision: Sample Or Strict Count?

February 15, 2001

The Census Bureau must decide in the next three weeks whether to use the actual 2000 census head count in drawing up congressional districts or to rely on so-called sampling, in which the count is revised by statistical means to reflect inadvertent omissions of hard-to-track groups. Sampling is thought to favor Democrats, while Republicans believe sticking with the strict count could increase their chances of winning as many as a dozen House seats in 2002.

  • When counting more than 280 million people, some inaccuracy is unavoidable; in 1990 the Census Bureau said it overlooked eight million people and counted four million twice.
  • That left a net undercount of four million, or 1.6 percent of the population.
  • Early figures for 2000 indicate there was an undercount of 0.96 percent to 1.4 percent, or about 2.7 million people.
  • The undercount is significant, because census figures are used to determine everything from the size and shape of legislative districts to the disbursement of the more $185 billion a year in federal funds.

Supporters of adjustment, or sampling -- largely Democrats and minority groups -- argue a second survey is necessary. This would involve taking a representative sample of the population and then extrapolating it to the national level.

Opponents argue sampling introduces its own errors, gives too much discretion to the Census Bureau and is a temptation to every politically interested group to interfere with the Census process. Finally, they note, while undercounting is unfortunate it is also diminishing, from 5.4 percent of the population in 1940 to no more than 1.4 percent this year.

Source: Jim VandeHei and Nicholas Kulish, "Census Dispute May Go To High Court," Nicholas Kulish, "Why the U.S. Census Might Be Adjusted, How It's Carried Out and Who's Affected," Edward L. Glaeser (Harvard University), "Census Sampling Is Dangerous," all Wall Street Journal, February 15, 2001.

For "Dangerous" text


Browse more articles on Government Issues