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Come to Our Census

Census 2000 is almost upon us — the questionnaire is shorter, but will it be more accurate?

by Damon Goldsmith

Enumeration versus Statistical Sampling

The Supreme Court ruled in March 1999 that statistical sampling could not be used as the primary census method — for purposes of apportioning seats in the House of Representatives, every citizen must actually be counted.

However, the Court also approved of sampling for other statistical purposes in the future. Critics say statistical sampling violates the Constitutional mandate for "actual enumeration" of the population — that every American must, and deserves to be, counted.

Many people are unaware that the actual enumeration the Constitution dictates has never been fully practiced. Statistical data are often used to fill in gaps in population data, and have been used in the census since the 1800s.

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Many Americans are busy watching the clock tick down towards Y2K, but no one is anticipating it more than the United States Census Bureau. With the 22nd national census set to begin in just under a year, the Census Bureau is racing against time to prepare for the decennial survey of the nation.

Census 2000 will be the shortest in 180 years, with only 7 questions. The Census Bureau estimates it will take no more than 10 minutes to complete, and it can even be filled out online. Yet despite increased money and manpower and improved operations, the census is expected to be no more accurate than any other since 1950.

If filling out yet another government form seems a chore to you, try to see it from the Census Bureau's perspective. Their task is to assign an estimated 275 million Americans to 120 million homes — all by April 1, 2000. To do this, they will begin a few weeks before census day by mailing over 120 million questionnaires to every residence in the country.

Information, Please?

The Census Bureau expects 79 million of those surveys to be returned within a two-week period. Once they begin flooding in, the Bureau will begin the task of trying to sort through the information.

To process this staggering amount of data, the Bureau will use a virtual army of workers and offices. Over 600,000 census workers will participate in Census 2000. The last time the government employed a group of workers this large was during the Great Depression. Hundreds of local and regional data processing offices will be set up to handle the information pouring in. Optical scanners will read incoming questionnaires and process the data.

Nobody's Home

Despite technological innovations, the U.S. Census Bureau has already quietly stated that Census 2000 will most likely be no more accurate than the 1990 one. An estimated 12 million "errors" were made in 1990, making that census the most inaccurate since 1950.

The Census Bureau says one of the major reasons the 1990 census was so inaccurate was that over 30 million households did not return their questionnaires, forcing the Bureau to go door to door to ascertain the number of people in each of those households. The Department of Commerce estimates that nearly 45 million homes may not comply with Census 2000, making their job even more difficult.

Lost in the Shuffle

Interest in participating in the census has severely declined in recent years. Census forms often get swallowed up in hordes of junk mail, or are never returned for fear of invasion of privacy, mistrust of the government, or lack of civic interest. To combat this, the Bureau has initiated an aggressive public awareness and advertising campaign to promote the importance and necessity of Census 2000.

Is this costly, Herculean effort really necessary? According to Article 1, section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, it is crucial. The 435 seats in the House of Representatives are apportioned using information provided by the census, so politicians are quite interested in the results of the census as well.

In addition to providing a statistical profile of the country, the census also is essential in deciding how more than 200 billion dollars in federal funds will be distributed among the fifty states. That money is used for everything from school lunch programs to highways to hospitals. The Census Bureau is working feverishly not only to count every American in next year's census, but also to show every American why they should help be counted.

Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

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