State Population Counts Deserve Closer Scrutiny

State Population Counts Deserve Closer Scrutiny
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The United States Census Bureau expects to deliver new state population estimates for 2020 before the end of November. But the Bureau has cautioned people against using these estimates given that the pandemic affected its ability to collect accurate data. At the same time, the Bureau is trying to inspire confidence in the full “census” state totals. But these “totals” deserve closer scrutiny. Trillions of dollars are at stake over the next decade, as well as control of Congress and the Electoral College.  

The Census Bureau provides two main population counts for the United States. They include annual population estimates based on sample surveys and a complete “census” count once every 10 years. The annual estimates come from the American Community Survey (ACS) program, which is based on sample surveys covering a fraction of households. The once-a-decade (“decennial”) complete census totals come from a much more extensive effort, theoretically covering everyone in America.

The decennial census results are used to determine apportionment — the number of seats a state holds in the House of Representatives. So the decennial census effectively determines the number of electoral votes for each state since each state has as many “electors” in the Electoral College as it has Representatives and Senators in the United States Congress. The decennial census totals matter for other critical policies, including the distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars of federal funding for state and local governments annually. 

In other words, those decennial census numbers are pretty darn important. But the annual population estimates matter, too, given that many government decisions are based on more timely population information.

The annual ACS survey results are based on samples, not complete totals, and therefore are subject to sampling error. Describing the interpretation of annual survey results and census totals, the Census Bureau has stated that “Differences between the estimates and census counts are interpreted as error in the estimates and not the census counts.” This assumption may put too much confidence in the decennial census totals, however.

In 2020, the ACS was only able to gather two-thirds of the responses it normally collects in the annual survey process. In late July 2021, the Census Bureau announced it would not release the annual ACS estimates for 2020, given the impact of the pandemic on its ability to accurately gather required information. Instead, the Bureau announced it would begin to issue “experimental” annual estimates, starting in this month. But it cautioned that those estimates should not be considered replacements for the annual ACS totals. 

In late July, the Census Bureau also issued a statement about the differences between the decennial Census totals and the ACS one-year estimates. The statement asserted the Bureau was able to “overcome pandemic-related challenges” in the decennial count, in contrast to the annual ACS survey, by “pouring additional resources into ensuring response.” 

The decennial count has already drawn increased scrutiny. On October 9, NPR reported that it had learned that the Census Bureau was planning to postpone and extend a follow-up quality-control survey for the decennial census, called the “Post-Enumeration Survey,” given growing concern about data quality. The Census Bureau has made no announcement of this decision. On October 13, the Washington Post’s Tara Bahrampour reported that “the 2020 Census was fraught with challenges” when it came to counting Black Americans. She included an assertion from a Democratic legislator from Michigan that “It was a perfect storm for an undercount on many levels,” and a statement from the CEO of the National Urban League that “this might be our greatest undercount since 1960, or 1950.” 

More recently, in an AP story from October 25, Mike Schneider reported on efforts in Boston and other college towns to convince the Census Bureau that the census totals for those cities missed students that should have been counted, given they had left for home with the onset of the pandemic. Importantly, Schneider noted that these efforts would not affect the estimates used for apportionment. 

In late October, the National Urban League issued a call for Congressional hearings on the quality of the 2020 census, criticizing how “The Black undercount directly impacts the integrity of local and state governance, redistricting and representation as well as the composition of the Electoral College and the U.S. Congress.”  

It is difficult to find anyone expressing concern about Census overcounts — perhaps not surprisingly, given how money and power attach to these numbers.

But ”get-out-the-vote” campaigns in some states, such as Illinois and others facing financial stress, might have actually led to a form of overcount, not undercounts. After the census results became available in April 2021, it became clear that states with significantly higher 2020 decennial census results than those expected from the ACS estimates from 2010 to 2019 (before the pandemic hit) tend to be financially-challenged, and Democratic, states. 

Meanwhile, a seemingly-reputable review by a task force established by the American Statistical Association recently concluded that it couldn’t reach a conclusion about the quality of the data delivered in the 2020 Census. Nonetheless, the task force report offered the following double-negative vote of semi-confidence: “Across the limited set of state level process statistics evaluated by the task force, it found no major anomalies that would indicate census numbers are not fit for uses of apportionment.”

Government accounting includes counting heads as well as dollars. And counting heads is not as easy as it may seem. Appraisals of the 2020 decennial census as well as annual population totals deserve close attention in coming months. There is a lot of money and power at stake in these numbers — and where there is a lot of money and power at stake, political forces gather like bees on honey.

Bill Bergman is director of research at Truth in Accounting.

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