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Monday, August 16, 1999
J. Kenneth Blackwell

People, not statistics, can deliver a fair and accurate census.

Next year, the federal government promises to fix the census.  “Don’t worry,” say politicians and statisticians singing the praises of statistical sampling.  “Modern scientific methods” will find the people left out of previous counts – a disproportionate number of whom are minority children and families.

Worry.  “Modern science” has, in the past, made false claims, from the safety of smoking to the inferiority of people of color.  Excuse my skepticism, but I grew up in a neighborhood where what the government promised, and what it practiced, could be as different as black and white.  So when I was appointed to a panel with oversight of the Census Bureau, I looked hard at the results the last time government promised to fix the census with “modern scientific methods.”

That was in 1990.  Like today, there was a political firestorm over whether to use “statistical sampling” to find the people the census missed.  “Statistical sampling” is like polling – statisticians take a small (less than one percent) sample of the U.S. population.  They use the results to estimate how many people are in each state, each city, each neighborhood, and each block.

Like today, people who wanted to use sampling insisted it was the only way to fix the census in places where it has always been broken.  Places like Laurel Homes, public housing in Cincinnati, and Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, the nation’s largest public housing community.  Counting people is also hard in the vast farmland of the Mississippi Delta, in Latino colonias along the Mexican border, in American Indian lands throughout the West, and in Asian neighborhoods throughout the country.

Not surprisingly, the people who live in these areas often face barriers to economic opportunity: African Americans, Latinos, Asians and American Indians living in urban and rural areas with high poverty.  The census misses a larger percent of people in these neighborhoods than in most neighborhoods.

For example, when we looked hard at the 1990 sample, we found 783 neighborhoods where the census missed more than ten percent of the people.  In many, the census missed 20, 30, 40 percent or more of the population.  Most of the people in those neighborhoods – about 60 percent – were Black, Latino, Asian or American Indian.  These are the places needing the most attention – the neighborhoods sampling is supposed to make whole.

However, when we examined what would have happened if sampling had been used, we found that these neighborhoods would have remained heavily undercounted.  Sampling generally added a few people, but never enough to fix the problem.  The average undercount in these neighborhoods before sampling was 37 percent.  After sampling, it was still 34 percent.

It turns out, “modern scientific methods” mostly adds people to neighborhoods with good census counts – or to neighborhoods where the census mistakenly counts too many people.  In the 1990 sample, 75 percent of the people added through sampling would have been added to neighborhoods where more than 90 percent of the people were already counted.  Alarmingly, almost 20 percent of the people added were added to neighborhoods that were overcounted.

All these numbers add up to this: sampling alone has no hope of correcting large undercounts common to African American, Latino, American Indian and Asian neighborhoods.  Anyone who relies on statistical adjustment to make their neighborhood whole will be disappointed.

When Washington experts fail (that is to say, most often), turn to local experts.  If you want to find out how many people live in a neighborhood, ask someone who lives or works there.

For the last year, my partners on the Census Monitoring Board and I have done just that.  We visited the Menominee Indian Reservation in Wisconsin, Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, Latino colonias in Texas, farms throughout the Mississippi Delta, and other neighborhoods across the country.

Everyplace we went, we found local experts who knew the area better than anyone from Washington ever could.  In Wisconsin, it was Chief Apesanahkwat (Apee sa na quat).  In Chicago, it was Tyrone Galtney and Levi Nawls, Robert Taylor residents who work with neighborhood kids, and Reverend Herbert Martin of the nearby Progressive Community Church.  In Brownsville, Texas, Alma Rendon, director of the Cameron Park Centro Cultural, is known and trusted in the Latino community.  In Gulfport, Mississippi, it was Pastor James Adams of the Little Rock Missionary Baptist Church.

In Laurel Homes, the human information network consisted of my “aunties” – more aunties than my mother and father had sisters.  At any given time, my aunties might be on the stoop or at the window, from one end of the neighborhood to the other.  If you got into trouble on one end, the news was at the other faster than you could run.  Kids today have the Internet.  But in my neighborhood, we had the Auntie-Net.

Unfortunately, Washington experts often mistake low income for low IQ.  In other circumstances, women like my aunties in Cincinnati and men like Tyrone and Levi in Chicago would be doctors, lawyers, and professionals, commanding the same respect as the experts at the Census Bureau.

Some people want you to believe the census is only about politics, a fight between Democrats and Republicans.  But there is a more important fight: the fight to make Washington experts show a little respect for our neighborhood experts.  My aunties at the window, Tyrone and Levi in Chicago, Reverend Adams in Mississippi, the Chief in Menominee: these are the true experts on undercounted communities.  Respect them.  Listen to them.  Hire them.  Give them the funding and support to count people, to build a platform for people to speak up and speak out and break down the barriers to opportunity.  Politicians and statisticians can use “modern science” to make their best guess from Washington.  But don’t tell me it will fix the problem, and don’t use it as an excuse not to count my neighborhood.


J. Kenneth Blackwell is Co-Chairman of the U.S. Census Monitoring Board.  He is the Secretary of State of Ohio, and a childhood resident of Laurel Homes in Cincinnati – where he was later elected Mayor.

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