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Posts Tagged ‘census’

The Political Census

Just two days before the end of Trump’s reign, his appointed Director of the Census Bureau resigned following Bureau professionals’ resistance to his efforts to issue premature numbers in the waning hours of the administration. This was just the latest battle in the political warfare that enveloped the 2020 Census.

It’s not as if previous censuses avoided politics–they didn’t, as I discuss below–but 2020 was notable. For one, the Trump administration tried to add a citizenship question for the first time in 70 years, everyone understanding that its purpose was to scare immigrants, both documented and un-, into evading the count. The Supreme Court blocked that tactic. The administration also shortened the time available to complete the census even as inadequate funding and the Covid-19 pandemic made the work much more difficult. These moves would all produce underestimates of the population, especially in heavily Democratic districts and states. For the same purpose, the Trump administration asserted that House seats should be apportioned, for the first time ever, based only on the number of citizens and legal immigrants rather than of the number of “persons” as stipulated in the constitution (Art. I, Sec. 2).

But census politics goes back a long time–indeed, to the Constitutional Convention, where one of the North-South compromises ended up counting slaves as three-fifths of a person in the census, although, of course, without allowing slaves, nor women, nor Indians, nor the poor, even three-fifths of a vote. In late 1890, to take another example, the superintendent of the Census was compelled to write a ferocious defense against attacks on the validity of census, fending off charges about undercounting in New York (with all its immigrants) and overcounting in the South.

A review of recurrent political issues in the census puts this year’s chaos in perspective.

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Stumbling in the Dark

I recently turned to one of the central sources of information about social trends in America, The Statistical Abstract of the United States, described on its web page as “since 1878, the authoritative and comprehensive summary of statistics on the social, political, and economic organization of the United States.” Also on the web page was this notice, in bold red: 

The U.S. Census Bureau is terminating the collection of data for the Statistical Compendia program effective October 1, 2011. The Statistical Compendium program is comprised of the Statistical Abstract of the United States and its supplemental products . . . .

The notice goes on to explain that the elimination was a result of fiscal cutbacks and it advises readers to scour footnotes of old tables for the sources of the data and go there.

This budget-cutting – criticized by some on both the left and right – is annoying, but it is just one several trends in making access to information about our society more difficult, more costly. And thereby making it harder to understand what is happening in America.

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