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Historic Overview

The United States has taken a picture of its population every decade since 1790: the decennial census. Each picture attempts to answer two questions; How many people are in the United States, and where are they located? Both answers are necessary to assign seats in the House of Representatives, ensure fair and equal political representation, and distribute billions of dollars in federal and state aid to counties, townships, cities, Native American reservations, villages and, most importantly, the thousands of neighborhoods throughout the United States.

After 200 years, the census has answered these questions in amazing detail. According to the best estimate of the Bureau of the Census (the Bureau), the 1990 census missed only 1.8 percent of the population. In 1990, the Bureau located over 248 million people in the most mobile and culturally diverse population in the country’s history. Those results were good – but Census 2000 must be better.

The Bureau determined the 1990 count fell short by roughly 4.7 million people (less than two percent of the total population)1. The Bureau candidly reported that those results were disappointing, because the 1990 undercount was larger than the previous census (in 1980). The results also continued an alarming trend: those left uncounted were disproportionately from minority, low-income or urban communities. About half were children.

The Bureau’s success counting some groups more than others is known as the differential undercount. The Bureau reported disproportionate undercounts of African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and American Indians. In a country that strives for fairness and equality, particularly in political representation, the differential undercount is a grave concern for the census. With its suggestion of racial inequality, it is certainly one of the most controversial concerns.

However, analysis indicates that race is coincidental with other factors, such as location, that produce census undercounts. The Bureau lists several characteristics typical of undercounted areas, including mobile populations, language barriers, and irregular housing. According to the Bureau, "Because higher proportions of the nation’s children, renters and minorities live in these situations, it should not be surprising that their undercount rates are higher."2 Since 1990, the Bureau has made efforts to improve the census as a whole, and specifically to improve census-taking in areas prone to high undercounts.

As a result, Census 2000 will be substantially different from 1990. For the first time, the Bureau will not build its address list from scratch, instead revising the 1990 address list with the help of the U.S Postal Service and local governments.3 This also marks the first time the Bureau’s list has been open to full review by local governments.4 The census form itself has been simplified, and a $100 million advertising campaign has been planned to increase mail response. Census 2000 will use new character-recognition technology to "read" and record census forms faster. For 2000, the Bureau plans to increase partnership efforts with local governments and community organizations. Some of those partnerships are already in place.

However, the most controversial change proposed for Census 2000 involves the use of statistical sampling to adjust census numbers. In 1988, cities, states and individuals, led by New York City, filed suit to force the Bureau to adjust the population counts – add and subtract people – according to the results of a statistical sample. The proposed sample was the Post Enumeration Survey (PES), a sample of 170,000 households designed to measure census coverage.

The Secretary of Commerce decided the statistical methodology was too inaccurate and unreliable to adjust the 1990 numbers. In 1992, a high-level Bureau committee confirmed the Secretary’s reservations, reporting that about half the PES adjustments were erroneous.5 In 1996, the Supreme Court also supported the Secretary’s decision not to adjust using sampling.6

However, the Bureau continues to build on the example of the 1990 PES. Encouraged by recommendations from two panels convened by the National Academy of Sciences, the Bureau developed plans to adjust Census 2000 according to a similar, larger statistical survey.

During budget negotiations in November 1997, debate over the census resulted in Congress’ and the Administration’s compromise on preparations for Census 2000. Legislation directed the Bureau to continue preparing for Census 2000 on two tracks: one using statistical adjustment, the other attempting a full enumeration.7 The same legislation provided for expedited appeal of lawsuits over plans to use statistical adjustment in Census 2000.

On January 25, 1999, the Supreme Court ruled, prohibiting the use of sampling for the purposes of Congressional apportionment in Census 2000. The Secretary of Commerce quickly asserted plans to use statistical adjustment – yet another post-enumeration survey similar to the one attempted in 1990 – to alter the results of Census 2000 for the purposes of everything other than apportionment.

Disagreement over the accuracy, constitutionality and political consequences of the Department of Commerce’s renewed proposal to use statistical adjustment continues the heated debate between politicians, lawyers and statisticians. Although the arguments are often reported in primary colors, the issues offer a full palette of legal, political and academic opinion. They range from the broadest questions of constitutional authority, to the finest points of mathematical minutiae. Reasonable people can, and do, disagree on many of them.

The same legislation that expedited the Court’s review also established the Census Monitoring Board, an eight-member bipartisan oversight committee charged "to observe and monitor all aspects of the preparation and implementation of the 2000 decennial census." Four (Congressional) members were appointed by leadership in Congress. Four (Presidential) members were appointed by President Clinton.

Due to delays in the Presidential appointments, the Board convened for the first time on June 3, 1998. Staff were hired shortly thereafter, and full operations began in July 1998. Co-Chairman and Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell leads Congressional members Dr. David Murray, A. Mark Neuman and Joe Whitley, Esq. Their Presidential counterparts, led by Co-Chairman and former U.S. House Majority Whip Tony Coelho, are Gilbert Casellas, Esq., Dr. Everett Ehrlich and Lorraine Green.

This report, the first in a series required by statute, represents the Congressional members’ efforts, in six months, to overtake an argument that has raged for more than ten years, over two questions that have been posed for two centuries: How many people are in the United States, and where are they located?