Officials Optimistic That 2000 Census Is Better Than EverWASHINGTON
Last month, federal officials announced that the response rates for Census 2000 exceeded those of the 1990 U.S. Census by 2 percentage points, from 65 percent to 67 percent. The 2000 Census response rate also exceeded the U.S. Census Bureau’s projected rate, which was 61 percent.
“Thanks to the public’s help, Census 2000 is a good census,” according to an official statement released by U.S. Census officials.
Although Census officials have pronounced the data collection portion of Census 2000 a success, the experience of Black scholars and officials is one that would caution them to wait and see what the actual numbers are. But instead of expecting a high undercount of the Black population, a few scholars are optimistic that the actual number count will be a considerable improvement over past censuses. The major census reports will be generated before the Clinton administration is concluded.
“In general, it does seem to be a better mail-back response rate,” says Dr. Robert Hill, vice-chair of the Census Advisory Committee on the African American Population. “We do believe there’ll be a smaller undercount this year than in 1990. We think the advertising campaign and the partnership program did help.”
Hill, who was formerly the executive director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University in Baltimore, says higher mail-back rates in major cities with high minority populations suggests that the statistics for Blacks and other minorities will be more accurate than in 1990, when the Black undercount was the highest ever when compared to the White undercount.
“The Black undercount was 5 percent in 1990. This year, we believe it will be less than 5 percent,” notes Hill, who is basing his estimate on preliminary examinations of Census 2000 returns.
The 1990 minority undercount proved to shortchange cities millions of dollars in federal funding for social services. Overcrowded urban school districts lost out on federal funding and community groups had difficulty utilizing faulty data for applying for grants, according to experts.
“The [U.S.] Census is the single leading source for demographic information. Problems with the Census impair official decision-making, scholarly inquiry, and simply give us a distorted understanding of the world,” says Frank Wu, professor of law at the Howard University Law School in
The 1990 undercount also proved frustrating for scholars who use demographic data to conduct their research. “For [scholars] interested in poverty and related issues, the undercount is problematic in studying social safety-net issues and disadvantaged populations. This [problem] was widely acknowledged among researchers,” says Dr. Margaret C. Simms, vice president for research at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.
Simms agrees there is evidence that data from Census 2000 will prove more reliable than that from the 1990 Census. “The problem of the census undercount is viewed as a problem more broadly than one of race … But there’s more of an interest by African Americans and others because [minority scholars] tend to conduct research related to the minority community,” Simms adds.a better job
Census officials had resolved to do a better job in counting minorities at the outset of the 1990 Census, according to observers.
“They understood certainly that with the census they had to increase outreach to certain portions of the population to try to boost the response. They formed alliances and made a better effort to get a variety of organizations involved. And they switched advertising campaigns,” says Simms of the Joint Center.
Census Bureau officials enlisted the aid of such organizations as the Joint Center, churches and Black fraternities and sororities. A highly visible media campaign organized by minority-owned advertising firms also contributed to public awareness.
“The Joint Center had an outreach program. We collaborated with other groups and looked at the issue in terms of the undercount,” Simms says.
Hill, a research scientist who has been serving in an advisory capacity to the Census Bureau, believes the partnerships and advertising campaign have helped to make a critical difference in reducing the minority undercount. He says it was unfortunate that the U.S. Supreme Court banned the use of statistical sampling as a way to present corrected data for the purpose of congressional redistricting.
Using statistical sampling to provide a corrected estimate of the U.S. population would produce results minimizing the undercount far better than the traditional enumeration method of going door to-door in an effort to track hard-to-find people, according to Hill.
“We believe the Bureau should have been able to sample the last 10 percent of those hardest to count. Instead, the enumerators had to go door-to-door,” Hill says. MULTIRACIAL MOSAIC
Last month, in addition to announcing Census 2000 data collection results, the Census Bureau released 1999 population survey results revealing that no single racial or ethnic group is in the majority in California’s population. The news seemed to confirm the demographic projection that Whites will cease to be a majority in the United States at some point in the 21st century.
The rapid growth of the U.S. Hispanic population and influx of non-White immigrants into the United States represent major factors accounting for the shift in America’s racial and ethnic profile. It is believed that Census 2000 will further confirm the shift in the American population.
“Some people are more nervous than optimistic about the demographic changes our country is experiencing,” Howard Law School’s Wu says. He adds that these changes “ensure that we will make a transition no other country at any time in history has ever done peacefully, much less successfully: from a single dominant racial majority to a multiracial democracy.
“The change in overall numbers is just one facet of the overall picture. As important are the distribution of wealth and power and privilege, the persistence of hypersegregation, and the patterns of so-called ‘White flight.’ Just because people of color have numbers on their side doesn’t mean they have achieved equality,” he added.
Previously, Americans were allowed to designate more than one category in describing their racial and ethnic background. That change had been made to accommodate the growing number of Americans claiming multiracial backgrounds. The push for the ethnic and racial options gave African American organizations and political groups cause to worry, however. There is some concern that Black political organizations and communities would face dilution of their power if the multiracial categorizing attracted a significant number of people who would have in the past identified themselves solely as Black.
Dr. Halford Fairchild, an associate professor of psychology and Black studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., says the fear that significant numbers of Blacks might opt for a multiracial identity is a realistic one given the Black experience in the United States. “There is a great deal of social pressure [around Black people] to distance oneself from Black identity,” Fairchild says.
He cites legal cases where Blacks have attempted to skirt segregation laws by claiming a non-Black identity and cultural trends of grooming to appear less African-descended as examples of racial distancing by African Americans. “The social pressure has rewarded people of African descent for being something other than Black,” Fairchild says.
Hill says that the African American census committee helped pushed the U.S. Office of Management and Budget to allow the U.S. Census Bureau to configure its data for civil rights enforcement purposes that reflect traditional racial categories. The Census 2000 forms had more than 50 racial and ethnic categories, according to officials.
Hill says data produced for the U.S. Justice Department, which oversees civil rights enforcement in the United States, will provide traditional race categories for counting the U.S. population. Those categories have been “White, Black or African American, American Indian and Alaska Native, “Asian” and “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander,” according to the Census Bureau.
Hill adds that the African American census committee also is pushing for the Census Bureau to produce similar data that would be available to community groups seeking health and economic development assistance. He is seeking to enlist the assistance of academic associations, such as public health and community development professors, to lobby the Clinton administration.
“We’re concerned with the data being user-friendly,” Hill notes.
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