NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Adjusting The Census Figures

November 17, 2000

The decennial enumeration required by the U.S. Constitution was completed earlier this year, and the Bureau of the Census faces a December 31, 2000, deadline to provide state population totals for congressional reapportionment.

A number states will gain or lose members of the U.S. House of Representatives based on these numbers. And federal funds for state and local governments based on population formulas are at stake. There are concerns that minorities were undercounted, and some jurisdictions will lose funds due to the undercount.

However, observers say the problem has been exaggerated.

  • In the past, the census has disproportionately overlooked blacks and other minorities -- in 1990, for example, the census missed about 5 percent of Hispanics and 4.4 percent of African Americans, compared to 0.7 percent of non-Hispanic whites.
  • About $185 billion in federal funds are distributed annually based on census data; yet in 1998, according to the General Accounting Office, just $449 million of that total (only 0.33 percent) would have been shifted if the 1990 census numbers had been more accurate.

A bigger problem, say observers, will be changes in the census form and adjustments made for the undercount.

  • In the 2000 census, for the first time, individuals were permitted to identify themselves as belonging to more than one race; but it is yet to be determined how the Bureau will tabulate such responses.
  • To compensate for uncounted minorities, it has been argued that census results be statistically "adjusted"; the Supreme Court ruled last year that adjusted census numbers could not be used to apportion Congress, but it left open whether such numbers could be used for funding formulas and redistricting.

The Bureau plans to produce two sets of numbers, both adjusted and unadjusted, assuring continued wrangling over an otherwise successful census.

Source: Peter Skerry, "Counting on the Census," Philanthropy, September-October 2000, Philanthropy Roundtable, 1150 17th Street N.W., Suite 503, Washington, D.C. 20036, (202) 822-8333.


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