Budget Cuts May Cause Census Inaccuracies

In October 2009, the Pew Charitable Trusts and Philadelphia Research Initiative released a report forecasting that economic difficulties will cause considerable undercounting in the 2010 Census, particularly in large cities. The report focused on Philadelphia but also looked at ten other cities, examining the five most populous in the country- Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and Phoenix- and five which are demographically similar to Philadelphia- Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Detroit and Pittsburgh.

Almost all eleven cities studied had less money and fewer staffers set aside for the 2010 Census preparation than they had in 2000. Only five of the cities had even committed public funds to outreach as of the publication of the report. Without the outreach programs normally organized by the cities, it is likely that far fewer people will turn in their mail-in questionnaires. This means that response percentages, already below the national average in these cities, are likely to decrease. As response percentages fall, undercounting will increase, another number that tends to be higher in these cities than the nation as a whole.

These economic issues come on top of the fact that the world that has changed a lot since 2000, particularly when it comes to government trust. The report quotes New York City’s population division chief, Joseph Salvo as saying that “Nobody is expecting a good Census in 2010. I’m not optimistic. Since the last Census we had 9/11, privacy issues, trust of government issues. And there’s been no public declaration that we’re going to suspend immigration raids like in 2000.”

Cities normally spend significant amounts of money on Census preparation and outreach because undercounting has the potential to become a major concern. First, undercounting can cause cities to receive fewer dollars in state and federal aid, numbers which are based largely on population estimates. Second, redistricting is based on the Census numbers and a miscount of a few thousand people could cost the city political representation, particularly in the state legislatures.

Large cities generally are hurt more by undercounting than smaller ones as they “have a disproportionate number of the hard-to-count groups and high demand for the tax-supported social services many members of those groups use.”

In addition to city budget cuts, the economic crisis may also affect the Census in other ways. The huge rise in home foreclosures may make it more difficult to count several million people, as they no longer have their own permanent address. Also, last year saw the fewest number of Americans moving houses since 1948. This could lead to different growth patterns than have been seen in the past. The economic impact on the Census could have serious political consequences across the nation in the next redistricting cycle.

Hat tip to Sewell Chan at New York Times Cityroom blog

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