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Using Statistical Sampling to Estimate the U.S. Population: The Methodological and Political Debate over Census 2000*

  • Thomas L. Brunell (a1)

Extract

One of the most hotly debated issues of the past four years has been the method to be used to count the population in Census 2000. Broadly, the debate is over whether to incorporate statistical sampling in the decennial census for the purposes of enumerating the population. Each of the previous 21 U.S. censuses has failed to count all persons. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were certain that the state population totals tallied for the first census in 1790 were wrong (Skerry 1992). To make matters worse, the census must do more than simply tally the number of people in the country; it must also report exactly where each of these people live. By any metric, this is a Herculean task. Indeed, enumerating and fixing geographically 100% of the population without some error is impossible.

In this article I outline the plan for Census 2000, define the political debate, and offer an assessment of the plan itself. I argue that deciding how to conduct the census has been, and will continue to be, an inherently political process, and that there are reasonable, scientific arguments against adjusting the census. I became interested in this issue during my tenure as an APSA Congressional Fellow, when I staffed the Subcommittee on the Census in the House of Representatives. Before I began my fellowship on Capitol Hill, I was suspicious of the argument against adjusting the census statistically. How could anyone possibly be against adjusting the census with statistical methods?

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References

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Breiman, Leo. 1994. “The 1991 Census Adjustment: Undercount or Bad Data?Statistical Science 9(4): 458–537.
Brown, Lawrence D., Eaton, Morris L., Freedman, David A., Klein, Stephen P., Olshen, Richard A., Wachter, Kenneth W., Wells, Martin T., and Ylvisaker, Donald. 1999. “Statistical Controversies in Census 2000.” Jurimetrics 39(Summer): 347–75.
Connolly, Ceci. 1999. “Hastert Steps up to Leading Role.” The Washington Post, January 5, A1.
Committee on Adjustment of Postcensal Estimates. 1992. “Assessment of Accuracy of Adjusted Versus Unadjusted 1990 Census Base for Use in Intercensal Estimates.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census.
Fay, Robert E., Passel, Jeffrey S., and Robinson, J. Gregory. 1983. The Coverage of Population in the 1980 Census. No. HC80-E4. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. Evaluation and Research Series.
Hogan, Howard. 1993. “The 1990 Post-Enumeration Survey: Operations and Results.” Journal of the American Statistical Association 88(September): 1047–60.
Prewitt, Kenneth. 1999. “Census 2000: Science Meets Politics.” Science, February 12, 935.
Skerry, Peter. 1992. “The Census Wars.” The Public Interest 106(Winter): 1731.
Stark, P.B. 1999. “Differences Between the 1990 and 2000 Census Adjustment Plans, and Their Impact on Error.” Technical Report 550. Berkeley: Department of Statistics, University of California.
U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. 1997. Report to Congress—The Plan for Census 2000 <http://www.census.gov/main/www/stat_activities.html>. Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of the Census.
U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. 1999. Census 2000 Operational Plan Using Traditional Census-Taking Methods: Summary <http://www.census.gov/dmd/www/sum3.htm>. Washington, DC: Bureau of the Census.
Waite, Preston Jay, and Hogan, Howard. 1998. “Statistical Methodologies for Census 2000.” Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of the Census.

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Using Statistical Sampling to Estimate the U.S. Population: The Methodological and Political Debate over Census 2000*

  • Thomas L. Brunell (a1)

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