Census Aims to Move Into the Future

Congress Sets the Rules

A total of 223 countries and areas are taking a census between 2005 and 2014 — from Indonesia, Russia and Brazil to Namibia and Mexico, the United Nations Statistics Division reports.

Why is the USA, the leader of the free world and the third most populous nation (an estimated 309 million people), still unable to come up with a less arcane system?

"The Census needs to both count people and place them," said Martha Farnsworth Riche, Census director from 1994 to 1998. "That's what makes us pretty much different from most other countries and what makes the mandate really different."

The reason the Census must track not only the number of people but where they live is simple: The Constitution requires a count of every person living in the USA to determine the number of seats each state gets in the House of Representatives. Every 10 years since 1790, a Census has been taken. Census counts also are used to draw state and local political districts.

"We're still doing the Census the way we did it the first time," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a member of a Senate subcommittee that oversees the Census. "There's been no long-term planning, no foresight, no investigation of what other government agencies are doing in terms of secured (online) networks."

Every change and every dollar spent on the Census requires approval from Congress — a reality that creates political tussling every 10 years.

The Census Bureau answers to the Commerce Department, which is headed by presidential appointees who can change after elections every four years — often in the middle of a 10-year Census cycle, when new strategies are being studied.

"The Bureau will put other options out and reasonable ideas will get on the table," Riche said. "The Bureau will test them and everybody in Congress will look at which method will help their guys and which will hurt them. ... Remember, the Census belongs to Congress."

Coburn, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., and Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Charlie Dent, R-Pa., and have introduced bipartisan legislation that would give the Census Bureau more independence.

Among key proposed changes: Allowing the director to submit opinions in testimony to Congress even if they're different from the administration's, and requiring an annual report to Congress on the next Census. Seven former Census directors —Republican and Democratic appointees — have endorsed the measure.

More Issues Loom

The Census faces other challenges:

• There's a tight deadline. A population count for every state must be delivered to the president by the end of the year the Census is taken. When there are glitches that could be fixed with extra time, there is no flexibility to extend the deadline.

• It's not just a head count. Because it must count people where they live, using income tax returns, Social Security records or driver's licenses cannot do the job alone.

"Tax records don't capture the fact that Uncle Charlie is living in the attic," Anderson says. "The other problem is that the information on a tax form doesn't contain demographic information — mostly race and ethnicity."

Congress mandates collecting race and ethnicity data to give federal agencies the information they need to monitor compliance with anti-discrimination laws such as the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.

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