Why the census is always political

Why the census is always political

(02-22) 18:37 PST — With the 2010 census a year away and the Obama administration still taking shape, the survey has emerged as a partisan political football.

Earlier this month, Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, withdrew as commerce secretary-designate apparently due in part to disagreements with President Obama over the census and other issues. The flap left many Americans wondering why the technical business of counting the population should be such a heated political issue. But politicians, demographers and other census observers know that this year’s dustup over the census is only the latest chapter in a long history.

“It has been a political process since the first decision on how to count slaves. It goes back to 1790,” said Roberto Suro, a University of Southern California communications professor and long-time census watcher. The nation’s first census, he noted, considered a slave as just three-fifths of a person for the decennial head count.

The primary purpose of the census is to count every person living in the United States in order to draw the boundaries of congressional districts and ensure an approximately equal population in each. States and localities also use the data to determine political districts. And the federal government allocates funds for highways, schools, police and other purposes based on the population count.

“What’s not political about the census? It’s the basis of the two most important things in politics: money and representation,” said Harvard professor of government D. Sunshine Hillygus. “Mayors and governors are keenly aware of this. They know that getting an accurate count of their cities is going to directly translate into dollars.

“They also know that whether they get an additional congressman or one less congressman will depend on getting an accurate count.”

Gregg’s nomination sparked protest from African American and Latino leaders concerned that their communities have been perennially undercounted and afraid that Gregg, with a track record of opposing extra census funding, would sell them short.

To reassure these groups, President Obama indicated that the White House would exercise strong oversight of the census. But that only inflamed Republican leaders, who accused him of a Democratic “power grab.” Obama clarified that he didn’t intend to remove the operation from the Commerce Department, but Gregg bowed out of consideration.


The backstory to this D.C. drama is the long-standing problem that poor people, immigrants and young people are harder to count because they move more often and are less likely to respond to census enumerators. In 1990, the Census Bureau missed an estimated 8 million people, while double-counting another 4 million m

via Why the census is always political.


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