Counting our heads is easier said than done
By Charlie Mitchell
Americans, it’s time to stand up and be counted … or not.
The year 2020 looms and the U.S. Bureau of the Census is gearing up to do as the Constitution commands. (A cynical person would say something about how few constitutional directives are heeded these days, but let’s not be cynical.)
There’s no record of the cost of the first decennial headcount, but the last one cost $14.7 billion, which ciphers to about $49 per person. Can’t do these things on the cheap, you know.
The good news is that predictions were that 2010 Census would cost twice as much as the 2000 Census. It didn’t. Actual “life cycle costs” of the count were $1.6 billion below projections.
The bad news is that another doubling is projected — the 2020 count to cost twice as much as 2010.
We know that for a long, long time governments have needed to know how many people they govern. Jesus, for example, was born in Bethlehem because it was census (and tax collection) time.
But it was probably easier back then, and probably a lot more accurate.
Few people realize this, but about a fourth of residents were not counted, at least not officially, in 2010. The initial response rate to mailers was 72 percent. Later, that estimate was increased to 74 percent.
We’re just not good at standing still for a tally. There are other reasons advanced math was devised to fill in the gaps.
Many places, including Mississippi, don’t have block after block of homes and buildings efficiently and appropriately numbered.
This is a state where a person asks directions and is told, “Go down here a piece and just past where the big pecan tree was before it was struck by lightning and burnt up, there’s a road off to the left. Turn there and go about the same distance. When you get to the pasture where the Oswalts used to raise goats there’s a fork in the road. Take the fork and it leads right to where you’re going.”
Not surprisingly, the initial phase of the 2020 Census involves contacting emergency responders in all 3,077 counties and parishes to try to obtain the most current maps and addresses. (Some addresses in Mississippi can’t be reached due to condemned bridges, but that’s another column.)
Another reality is that the family structure is no longer Mom, Dad, Bud and Sue plus a dog, a cat and two goldfish. Today’s structure is more like Elizabeth and her two kids plus her sister’s three kids she’s keeping because her sister is deployed by the Army and their father is nowhere to be found. Elizabeth has a spouse, but he works offshore and is gone most of the time. Uncle Frank has a trailer out back and he stays there; sometimes his fiancée does, too, sometimes because she has another house where her parents live and sometimes she has to take care of them. Uncle Frank is not really their uncle, but they think of him as family.
It’s hard to design a form to record all that.
A third factor, also sadly prevalent in Mississippi, is that there are lots of people — especially low-income people — who don’t want to be counted. The 2nd Congressional District, composed mostly of the Mississippi Delta, had one of the lowest participation rates in the nation in 2010. Several counties had less than half the forms returned and only three approached the national average. The response rate in Wilkinson County in far southwest Mississippi was less than 20 percent. Only Texas border counties and scattered tribal lands were as abysmal.
Why? One factor Census officials concede is that while wealthy people say they don’t trust government, poor people really, really don’t trust government. If a census-taker finds out that Uncle Frank out back is getting a benefit check, his check might make the “household” ineligible for aid. If a family is receiving a housing subsidy, any extra people — not on the lease — can cause the subsidy to be cancelled. Of course, real cheaters — those using several names or collecting benefits for ghost children or deceased parents — certainly don’t want to be found.
So why have a census? Article 1, Section 2 requires the count to apportion voting districts, which is important. Perhaps more important is that census information — including household income and much more — is also used to influence literally hundreds of public policy decisions.
An accurate count will work to the benefit of Mississippi.
It’s just not easy to get.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.