Taking the Census

Another potential Obama policy change that has gotten buried in the furor over the Spendulus bill is the proposed transfer of ultimate Census Bureau authority from the Department of Commerce to White House chief-of-staff Rahm Emmanuel. (I know, I know — all this time we thought that Barack Obama was going to end the “imperial presidency” and decrease the number of government powers centralized in the White House. Color me flabbergasted.)

At the heart of the issue is the method for taking the Census. The Constitution proscribes the taking of a census every ten years, and the term “enumeration” included in the Constitution has been traditionally understood as a hand-count of every individual. Naturally, with a population now in excess of 300,000,000 people, mistakes are made. Republicans have pushed for a continuation of the hand count, and have offered to fund every effort (hiring additional workers, nationwide publicity campaigns, etc.) that would be required to make a hand count as accurate as possible. Democrats, on the other hand, advocate a census tally that incorporates statistical error correction methods.

The Democrat plan (explained in greater detail here) involves a statistical sampling method known as the capture/recapture method. This method works by sampling a subset of a population and then taking another sampling of the same population that is independent of the first. Statistical overlap between the first and second independently-sampled subsets is then calculated, and from the sampling and overlap data a final estimate of total population is produced. The method is mathematically sound and its proponents argue that it will greatly reduce the undercounting errors inherent in hand counts.

But who is most likely to be undercounted? Herein lies the root of the political battle. Democrats argue that residents of poor urban neighborhoods and rural areas are the most likely to be undercounted. (Yes, this is also the same group that is perpetually claimed to be under-registered to vote.) It is true that minority youth in poor neighborhoods tend to either avoid any voluntary contact with authorities, or tend to be shielded from authorities by adults if they have juvenile criminal records. And it’s doubtful that a census-taker wearing a government ID and carrying a notebook would ever be invited into a household that included illegal immigrants, even if legal immigrants or citizens also resided there.

Republicans argue that statistical methods approved by a Democrat-controlled White House would end up being biased in such a way as to grossly inflate population counts in poor and minority neighborhoods, thus allowing Democrats to gerrymander voting districts so that more Democrats end up in the House of Representatives, and local party bosses can effectively shut out any Republican efforts in those districts, thus permanently locking in Democrat representation.

While there is no easy answer to the problem of reducing error in the count of a population that exceeds 300 million, the Obama administration again seems to have opted for party-driven politics over bipartisanship. When the Census was administered by the Department of Commerce, there was a measure of accountability that made partisan control of the process difficult. But by placing control of the Census directly in the hands of Obama’s Democrat White House operatives, there will be no doubt as to the ultimate goal of the census takers.
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ADDED: This post at Samizdata.net discusses the Constitutionality of moving the controlling authority of the Census Bureau from the Department of Commerce to the White House and seriously asks, “Why am I expecting ACORN to get the census contract?

You might also enjoy this 1969 comedy skit from The Credibility Gap (mp3 audio) that explores an imaginary visit to the Nixon White House by a Census Taker. As I keep saying, the Obama Administration’s handling of these things could be comedy gold. Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and David Landers from the original Credibility Gap team are still around. Um, guys … anybody?