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Summer 2004 Vol. 4 No. 2

Table of Contents

©Chris McAllister/CorbisMaking the Census Count

Lessons From 2000

Uncertainty set the scene for 2000 census. Questions lingered about perceived failures of the 1990 census, which saw a substantial decline in public cooperation and -- despite higher costs per household to conduct it -- resulted in poorer coverage of minorities, renters, and children than of other population groups.

To address these problems in 2000, the Census Bureau designed a plan to rely more on statistical techniques than on mailings and house-to-house visits for the enumeration. That approach sparked opposition, however; some members of Congress questioned it, raising concerns about the accuracy of such techniques and their possible effects on the composition of voting districts. As a result of this opposition and further debate, the Census Bureau faced last-minute changes in the design of the census, delayed budget decisions, and more revisions in the plan, leaving insufficient time for test runs. In turn, these problems increased both the costs of the 2000 census and the risks of serious errors.

Despite the challenges, the last census was generally well-executed, says a new report from the National Research Council. There were some significant problems, such as duplicate addresses and missing data on the "long form" version of completed questionnaires, but the effort achieved a higher mail-response rate than the 1990 census and better coverage of minorities. The bureau's measures to enhance advertising and outreach programs and information-processing procedures also were successful.

Based on its evaluation of the 2000 count, the panel that wrote the report recommended some ways to improve the next census. Foremost, Congress, the administration, and the Census Bureau should reach final agreement on the basic design of the 2010 census no later than 2006, to leave sufficient time for careful planning and testing. And development of a more accurate address file, which is the basic starting point of the national headcount, must begin early. In addition, a large survey to evaluate coverage itself should be a part of the next census, the report says. The Research Council's related study, Reengineering the 2010 Census: Risks and Challenges, offers policy-makers further guidance on that topic.

The decennial census is the federal government's largest and most complex peacetime operation. Census data are used for a range of purposes, from redrawing congressional and state legislative district boundaries and allocating funds for public programs to informing everyday people about the characteristics of their localities. Having objective and accurate census information is an important component of good government, the panel said.   -- Vanee Vines

The 2000 Census: Counting Under Adversity. Panel to Review the 2000 Census, Committee on National Statistics, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2004, 621 pp.; ISBN 0-309-09141-1, available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $59.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Janet L. Norwood, a counselor and senior fellow at the New York City-based Conference Board, and a former U.S. Commissioner of Labor Statistics. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

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Copyright 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences