Tempest Over the Census

Andrew Reamer
Andrew Reamer Former Brookings Expert

February 17, 2009

President Obama’s nomination of Sen. Judd Gregg to be U. S. Secretary of Commerce and his dramatic withdrawal nine days later created much teeth-gnashing among diverse partisans with a stake in the outcome of the 2010 Census, a key Commerce Department activity.

The Congressional Black Caucus and Hispanic advocacy groups cried foul over Gregg’s previous actions they said were not completely supportive of an accurate count. In response, White House moves to exert greater Census control had conservative groups up in arms over the perceived potential for political manipulation.

Both sides’ concerns would be best addressed by focusing on the Census Bureau itself.

At issue: Low-income communities, particularly low-income communities of color, are more likely to be undercounted in the census. These same minority communities also tend to vote Democratic. After the 1980 and 1990 censuses, lawsuits were filed to require the federal government to use census numbers “adjusted” for the undercount as the basis for congressional apportionment.

The Census Bureau’s own evaluation of the accuracy of its 1990 count tells you why: 5 percent of blacks and Hispanics were lost in the count, but less than 1 percent of whites disappeared.

Following a far more successful Census 2000 (a 2 percent undercount for blacks and 1 percent for Hispanics), and a 1999 Supreme Court ruling against census statistical apportionment, the public brouhaha over statistical adjustment died down.

So with statistical adjustment off the table and an improved Census 2000 operation, what about conservative concerns that the White House would inappropriately meddle in Census operations?

They are off target for several reasons.

Paramount is that federal law explicitly gives the Commerce Secretary, not the president or the Census Bureau director, the responsibility for the count. The law tells the Census Bureau director to take orders from the Secretary.

Nonetheless, given the survey’s political implications, every White House takes an active interest in the decennial census. The Bush White House was significantly involved in the management of the 2010 Census. The notion that the Obama White House would work closely with Commerce over the census is consistent with historical practice.

No matter the level of White House interest, however, it can not force the Census Bureau to publish numbers that deviate from actual tabulations.

Certainly, because the hard-to-count tend to vote Democratic, the Obama White House has a greater incentive to use its influence to support an objective, accurate census than did the Bush White House. Reality is that the Republican Party benefits from an undercount of minorities.

So now that the Gregg appointment has blown up, what should Obama do?

The new president should appoint a new Census director immediately and not wait for the confirmation of the next Commerce Secretary. For several reasons, the Census Bureau is in urgent need of an experienced, Senate-confirmed director now.

First, the census operation is enormously complex. The 2010 Census will be the nation’s biggest peacetime operation, involving 1.4 million temporary staff, 500 field offices, and about $14 billion in expenditures.

Second, the nation has much at stake. An accurate census is essential to the proper functioning of our democracy, public policy, and the economy.

  • Census statistics are used to apportion and redistrict congressional seats, and, by extension, the number of electoral votes per state as well as state and local legislative district boundaries, while also informing Voting Rights Act compliance.
  • 2010 Census data will drive the geographic allocation of well over $400 billion in annual federal funding for programs like Medicaid, highway construction, and education.
  • State and local governments will also use census data to make similarly important spending decisions.
  • Businesses of all types (such as retail, manufacturing, services) and sizes (from Wal-Mart to sole proprietorships) rely on census data to make investment decisions.

Third, preparations for the 2010 Census have been very uneven, increasing the likelihood of a problematic census. Issues have included the forced resignation, retirement, or reassignment of top experienced officials; a flood of experienced mid-level retirements; lack of census preparation funding; and mismanagement of a critical technology contract.

Census history shows the effect of a leadership vacuum—the high 1990 undercount can be traced in part to the absence of a Census director in 1989.

However, waiting in the wings is the man who ran the successful Census 2000, Professor Ken Prewitt of Columbia University. Sen. Gregg affirmed that Dr. Prewitt, well respected by all parties, appears to be the Obama pick to take over the Census Bureau.

Time is running short.

While the fight over Gregg’s nomination was a tempest in a teapot—reactions based on long history and misunderstanding—it has the benefit of bringing attention to the census. As the success of the census is at stake, the president should immediately appoint Dr. Prewitt as Census director without waiting for the confirmation of the next Commerce Secretary.

Doing so will quickly put the tempest behind us and provide the Census Bureau with the experienced, knowledgeable hand it, and the nation, needs now.