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Making Sense of the Census

Part 3 - Impact of Census Data

Three Part Series on the Scope, Tech, and Impact of the U.S. Census Bureau


By: Isaac D. Tucker-Rasbury, Data Fellow '22 | Bluebonnet ata


After parts 1 and 2 of this series, Making Sense of the Census, you might think that “The census is the gold standard of government data, hands down, and there’s nothing else to it. Done deal.” However, I want to caution you against exactly that sentiment! It would be intellectually dishonest to only point out the good in the census when the analysis and impact of it are ripe with issues and prime-time television-level scandals.


Without being alarmist, I want to talk about the most important question this series will endeavor to answer: “why should you or I care about the census?”


The census has implications for every demographic, state, almost every federal program, and the U.S. Congress to name a few. It is also not an understatement to say that the census accounts for and impacts every inch of land under U.S. jurisdiction. So, to close out this three-part series, let’s take a walk through a handful of those impacts. Along the way, we’ll even sprinkle in a few key concepts to help with breaking down the ecosystem around our favorite public sector dataset.


Undercounting and Overcounting Demographics

After going on and on in Part 1 about the accuracy of the census, I must admit that the small margin of error in the census obscures a handful of more grim truths below. Namely, at least in the most recent census in 2020, minorities and children were miscounted. Here is a snapshot of some of the ways that happened:

  • Hispanics were historically undercounted to the tune of 3 million or 1-in-20.

  • The historic pattern of high undercount rates also continued in 2020 for the Black population, American Indians, and Alaska Natives on reservations.

  • Asians were overcounted by roughly 600K after years of neither over nor undercounts.

  • Americans younger than 50 and especially children were all undercounted.

  • Americans ages 50 and older – a disproportionately white group – were overcounted.

These counts are used by companies trying to target specific demographics, people planning where they’d like to live, and governments and their offices (ie. schools, hospitals, utilities, and transportation) to plan service offerings. A single census can substantially impact planning services for the public.


Apportionment Process in Congress

The census is also used by congress in a process called “apportionment”. Now, don’t click away or scroll elsewhere. I know that ‘politics’ are controversial and the process can be depicted as incredibly dry, but that is exactly when you should tune in. Where laws get into the weeds is where officials tweak and twist the rules into the policies we love and so often hate. Apportionment is the only topic I will take you into the weeds on, so bear with me.


Apportionment is the first use of the census and is defined as “ the process of dividing the 435 memberships, or seats, in the House of Representatives among the 50 states." Second to that, the census is used for geographically defining state legislative districts. And, finally, federal programs allocate funds based on census counts.


If we were to equate it to a sport, imagine congress and local-level government offices as the NBA, but instead of their draft slotting players to teams, it determined how many players a team could have on the court for the season. The Lakers (CA) and Mavericks (TX) are huge and subsequently might get to have 7 or even 8 players on the court rather than the more usual 5. Others would have 3 or 4. That’s a huge competitive advantage!


Now switch back to congress and local elections, and the stakes are much higher than points and applause. What is at stake is political power, the country’s collective wallet, and subsequently, communities’ abilities to respond to crises and ongoing issues for roughly the next decade.


With this in mind, the two major parties in the U.S. fight over rules, stipulations, amendments, and procedures to gerrymander legislative districts around census data to slice the public into districts more amenable to their own ends.


Trump’s Attempts to Weaponize the Census.

The Constitution mandates that everyone in the United States needs to be counted. Plain and simple, right? However, in 2020, then-President Donald J. Trump did his best to obstruct and neglect that constitutional mandate. So far we’ve talked about how the census impacts dollars, votes, and seats, but this one impacted people, specifically undocumented immigrants.


According to the Brookings Institute, Trump attempted to full-out remove undocumented immigrants (“illegal aliens” in the memo’s words) from the headcount that impacts apportionment. His administration went on to try to shorten the census-taking timeline by a month and create a national database of undocumented immigrants. These moves amounted to an intentional attempt to undercount groups that were not a part of his base.


These issues and particularly the matter of adding a question about citizenship status went all the way to the supreme court where they were struck down, but it still represents a chilling attempt to reshape the country in Trump's own party’s image. Layer on top of xenophobia the impacts on federal program budgets and seats allotted to states under apportionment, and this could have snowballed into a substantive reorganizing of the political landscape in the United States.


Conclusion

The census impacts each and every person living within the boundaries of the United States. As a data practitioner or information consumer, you have the right, ability, and option to access that information and use it responsibly to make the country a better place. I found that opportunity through volunteering for Bluebonnet Data, where I’ve collaborated with an organization called 2 Million Texans that works on relational organizing in Texas – and where I ended up writing this article!


My dream was to do this progressive kind of work by my thirties – after a few more years in the workforce and graduating from graduate school. I have been in the for-profit finance industry for the last four years, so I imagined it would take years of “putting in my time” until I could do what I ultimately wanted. I took it for granted that that was the case, but now I'm doing it as a fellow! This has been an exciting first step towards my professional mission of using data analytics to investigate strategic and novel questions to further the public good!


Subsequently, and on a more personal note, my family has been very supportive of my work, making this experience a meaningful and emotional time for us collectively. This experience has been great and we’re looking forward to continuing this work during the next round of the fellowship.


If you are looking for an opportunity to use your technical expertise to help support progressive down ballot Dems and related causes, join up with Bluebonnet Data!



About The Author

Isaac D. Tucker-Rasbury (he/him) was a Bluebonnet Data Fellow for 2Million Texans’ Blue Action Network in 2022. He is currently working remotely from Los Angeles as a data analyst at Slalom and as a financial technology tutor for edX which manages coding bootcamps for continuing learners. When Isaac isn’t neck deep in spreadsheets, he is dancing on rollerskates or practicing photography. If you would like to get in touch, he can be contacted via LinkedIn.


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