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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Who Counts?

Who knew the census was so political? Well, right, that’s the subtitle of the book. But I, for one, never thought about the origins and purposes of the census. It always seemed like such an isolated, bordering on trivial, part of government. It bothered me to read about Congress getting involved in the census process. Reading about partisan influences and patronage regarding the census, I kept thinking, “Partisan influence and patronage are terms you hear in bigger issues – things like energy policy and tax breaks.” Why can’t they just let the Census Bureau do its job? Congress is not going to change the outcome. Now I know that Congress, while not necessarily able to change the outcome, can very well change the process (which could change the outcome) and my flippant attitude toward the purpose of the census is naïve and unwarranted. The census is not just about how many people there are in the U.S. and what their ethnic backgrounds are.

I got distracted with the technical descriptions of census-taking in the last chapters of the book, but I did enjoy chapter 2 on the early history, particularly the sections on the civil rights movement and the recognition that the undercount was a political, not a technical, problem. I struggled with my opinions on chapter 8 and its discussion of race and identity and United States population history. The last chapters didn’t leave any lasting impression on me. They outline improvements in census-taking and predict/suggest for the future, but I didn’t get the feeling that any of the suggested measures would necessarily work. After all, despite (or maybe in spite of) what the government does, a complete and accurate count ultimately depends on the people being counted. I’m guessing there are still people that are not aware the census happens, are reluctant to mail back the forms, or are hostile to repeated requests to complete the forms. Maybe the solution is for the government to work with local groups – groups that those people are comfortable with. Maybe locals can convince them of the benefits of filling out the forms.

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