Census: keep in mind…

Census results, to some of us, are a like a very slowly breaking pinata. First we got the 2010 state totals. Lately we’ve been getting the local figures and their components. This has set the Nerdisphere on a protracted sugar rush while the media has been attempting to make sense of it all with varying success.

Some of the results were close to what was expected, such as the city of Seattle’s 8% growth rate for the decade…pretty impressive for infill in a place already occupied. Others were outright shocking to many. Either way, it’s important to remember some basics. 

First, the Census, while the “official” count, is not perfect. It’s a different methodology from the Census Department’s own annual estimates, but one fraught with its own pitfalls. When the cities of Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Houston, and New York each had counts six figures below what they expected based on estimates from the Census Department and local agencies, the estimates might have been way off, the count might have been way off, or both.

The estimates use imperfect assumptions and indicators to gauge trends. The Census attempts to count people who are often very difficult to count, or who actively try to avoid being counted. This will be more clear as analysts dig in, but anecdotally it seems like surprisingly low numbers were common in places with more language barriers, immigration issues, and/or poverty. We know that these factors correlated with lower mail-back rates for the basic form, and it’s a good bet that they also related to the ability to find a lot of people at all…even people that the estimates did catch by looking at trends such as housing.

Local governments will challenge results in some cases. They will probably fail to win major revisions, as in the past. I’m just guessing, but even very strong evidence will probably only achieve moral victories and not significantly revised official counts, because the bar will be extremely high. Another guess is that this is because courts have prioritized timely apportionment and districting over precise fairness.

The Census Department has done an impressive job with an astonishingly difficult task in many ways. Good PR effort and budget performance for example. But here’s a major criticism: the census.gov and 2010.census.gov websites are horrible. This is a major topic online…legions of tech-savvy nerds are trying to find information and failing, sometimes because it’s hidden, or only on the other site, and other times because it’s apparently not on either site at all. So aside from what’s in the basic press releases, the best information is generally from second parties who aggregate data. It’s appalling that an agency whose mission is to collect and share data could fail so utterly in one of its basic functions. Census Department, please hire some help, and consider qualifications!

Onward. A standard nerd debate has to do with municipal populations vs. broader city populations. The term “city” can refer an administrative district, but in the urban/demographics Nerdisphere, it usually means some variation of “entire developed area,” which is most similar to Urban Area (UA), Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), or “Combined Statistical Area” (CSA, for a city comprised of multiple MSAs). When Houston or Phoenix claim to be #4 or #6 in population among US cities, that gives us nerds fits. They’re talking about their central municipalities, i.e. subsets of the whole, which were drawn with wider-than-average boundaries. If Boston annexed a bunch of land tomorrow, would that make it a bigger city in any way that really matters?

Another suggestion is to use past tense. The Census says nothing about what “is.” Even if accurate, the count was a snapshot of 4/1/10.

Regarding what “is,” it’s interesting to wonder what’s happened since early 2010. In Seattle (the central municipality), we’ve already eaten up much of our vacancy rate. As some economic indicators and general hope have improved, we might be sharing housing a bit less. We’ve probably grown a little. You might also wonder what’ll happen in the coming years and decade, but that’s another story.

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