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Let Statisticians, Not White House, Conduct the 2010 Census

Original Article

For a while it seemed that the Obama Administration really didn’t mean last week’s suggestion that it would take conduct of the 2010 Census out of the Commerce Department and have the Census Bureau report directly to the West Wing.

Perhaps, one was about to concede, the White House merely aims to create the kind of independent agency—with all the protections for integrity that implies—envisaged in a bill being promoted by a number of leaders in the statistical community and introduced by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY). Under that bill the statistical office at OMB would oversee the agency. Of course, also under that bill, the independent Census Bureau would not even become a reality until 2012—two years after the coming Decennial Census.

Unfortunately, it is now clear that a new agency is not what the White House officials have in mind and that, indeed, having the Census Director report to someone on the president’s West Wing staff is exactly what that they have in mind. (Note what the White House press secretary says. For some reason, only Fox News seems to have picked it up)

If so, the Obama Administration is threatening a reckless politicization of the Census Bureau and that, in turn, threatens to pull into unnecessary dispute the fundamental data that sustain almost the entire statistical system of the United States. It has the image of a Chicago-style partisan power play.

Minority members of Congress have expressed concern that Sen. Judd Gregg (Republican, New Hampshire), incoming Commerce Secretary, has been hostile to the Census Bureau and has been skeptical of its processes in recent years. They note that he has not supported budget increases for the Bureau. More importantly, they worry that if the Bureau reports through the regular Commerce Department chain of command to Gregg the Census effort might not do enough to count minority citizens. (That supposedly is because Gregg is a Republican.) Therefore, they suggest that the Bureau should report to the White House senior staff. Let’s see: Obama’s pick for Commerce Secretary apparently cannot be trusted, but the Democratic politicos in the West Wing can be?

Mentioned only by inference in discussions so far is the plain hope that a Census Bureau under the thumb of White House staffers might be prevailed upon to adopt a policy to “adjust” the Census numbers in 20101, using sampling and computer modeling—with all the profound implications that would have for political reapportionment and redistricting that will follow the Census count.

Adjustment is a recurrent fantasy of Census critics on the Left who want population numbers more to their liking. It would turn the science of statistics into something where speculation and guesswork could introduce egregious and prejudicial errors.

The whole adjustment scheme is a mistake. Having the White House supervise it is even worse.

First of all, the White House and its Congressional allies are wrong in asserting that the Census in the past has reported directly to the president through his staff. Directors of the Bureau often brief presidents and their staffs, but, as a former director (under President Reagan), I don’t know of any cases where the conduct of the Bureau was directly under White House supervision. That includes Clinton in 2000, Bush 41 in 1990 and Carter in 1980.

They also are dead wrong about the feasibility of using sampling and computer models to make adjustment a credible way to improve the accuracy of the population count for purposes of reapportionment and redistricting.

The adjustment idea has been discussed for many decades. It never has enjoyed a large following among statisticians. Following an exhaustive three year study concluded in 2003, an even stronger consensus has developed among professional statisticians that adjustment cannot provide as credible and accurate a Census result as a hard count assisted by such techniques as examinations of public records of various kinds (e.g., drivers’ licenses).

In fact, for every decade since at least 1970 and especially starting in 1980 the Census Bureau has made ever-expanding outreach to minority communities, including undocumented foreign workers, trying to get as complete a count as is humanly possible. To suggest that there has been any resistance to getting such a complete count is invidious political grandstanding and an insult to the diverse and highly professional staff at the Census Bureau. When I was director I found the Census personnel to be among the most conscientious of any group I’d encountered in government service. Whatever their personal political views (i suspect that most voted for Obama), their allegiance is to the integrity of the positions of public trust they hold.

The question of a fair and full Census count is to be distinguished from questions about technical problems with new technologies that periodically plague the Bureau. In fact, the Bureau’s eagerness to get an ever improved hard count of residents of the U.S. may have pushed it to costly inefficiencies—which, ironically, is one of the complaints from elected officials on the political right.

Instead, the real issue is who directs the Census, the pros or the pols. If it is the pols, you may well get an order to adjust the Census count with samples and modeling. That will take a presidential order to over-ride the scientific consensus of statisticians at the Bureau and elsewhere.

You would think that an Administration that is thumping its chest about respecting science and scientists on such matters as climate change and embryonic stem cell research would show a little respect for the scientists in the statistical field (a branch of the science of mathematics) and their careful work on this topic.

But even if the new politicos in the West Wing don’t really care about the science involved, you’d think they would have a better sense of the political dangers—for themselves, if not for the country. The Census is one of our oldest, most treasured civic institutions and one of the few functions of government named in the Constitution. As in matters of officials’ ethics (as we keep hearing), one not only needs to avoid the reality of impropriety, but also the appearance of impropriety. To be fair and accurate, the process has to be transparently fair and accurate .

With adjustment by sampling and modeling, however, you will get inaccuracies baked into the process. It might mean better macro-numbers, but once you start imputing abstract “missing people” into Census tracts, you not only introduce errors, but errors that are demonstrable. “Virtual persons” (as I call them) of varying demographic characteristics will be assigned right down to the block level where anyone could go door to door and find out that such people cannot be found.

When that happens, the Census ceases to conform to common sense. Its numbers begin to look fanciful. A hard count might have errors, but has always been defensible in court. An adjustment would have more errors and its process would be subject either to deceit or the appearance of deceit.

You can imagine the news stories as small town mayors show the palpable folly of specific adjusted Census figures. The late night comics would be inviting you to “meet your neighbor who doesn’t exist.” If you think there is paranoia in the political field now, just wait until you have an “adjusted Census”—”adjusted” at the direction of politicians in the White House!

Has President Obama thought this through? “Fixing” the Census in a way that politicizes it is not what the new president’s image needs.

But beyond the issue of image, does he have time for this? Letting the White House assume responsibility for the management of the Census is like turning the management of the war in Afghanistan over to some little group in the White House. It will become a political quagmire. Deciding on bombing targets in the Vietnam War didn’t do a lot for LBJ, did it? The Census is controversial by nature, and often in fairly petty ways—people are always demanding more attention and resources for their states and cities. Why bring all that into the West Wing?

The Census Bureau arguably suffered from White House neglect in the Bush Administration. It has real problems to confront now as it readies a Decennial Census that is already well into the testing stage for a final push in a year and two months (April, 2010). It needs to get a new Director in place—and, at this point, someone qualified by past experience. Let that new director and his or her staff get on with the job and let the White House limit itself to assuring that politics is kept out of the picture. That will work.

In contrast, it is hard to conceive a more damaging way to complicate the Census process now than to try to put its direct oversight into the hands of a political and novice White House staff that has a whole world of other vital concerns to contend with.

Say you don’t mean it, Mister President!