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Census, Uncensored

Former US Census director Kenneth Prewitt discusses gay marriage counting, Michele Bachmann's comments, and other mysteries of the 2010 Census.

| Fri Jun. 26, 2009 4:30 PM EDT

Kenneth Prewitt served as Bill Clinton's director of the US Census Bureau from 1998 to 2001 and, before he withdrew his name from consideration, was widely considered a front-runner to return to the post in advance of the 2010 Census. He has authored or coauthored a dozen books on census-related matters and is completing a historical study of the tortured consequences of the nation's official racial classification from 1790 to the present. Currently, he serves as a part-time consultant for the US Census Bureau, appointed by President Obama.

He spoke with Mother Jones this week about gay households, Michele Bachmann, and who won't be counted in the 2010 census.


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Mother Jones: What do you think about people like Rep. Michele Bachmann, who in an interview with The Washington Times said that she refused to fill out the 2010 census form?

Kenneth Prewitt: I think it's seriously unfortunate when an elected official of the federal government says she's going to deliberately break the law. I don't know what kind of signal she thinks that sends, but if she believes that's a good signal, I'm sad for the country. I think that it's deeply, deeply, unfortunate that a member of Congress would, in effect, invite other people who feel that way to say, "Well, I don't have to do it either."

MJ: Do you think that radio hosts and other prominent people questioning whether people should participate in the 2010 census could turn this into a partisan issue?

KP: Everything can turn into a partisan issue.

MJ: Do you think the Census Bureau has been damaged by partisan activity?

KP: It's a complicated question because the partisan activity goes back to 1790. [Laughs.] The first presidential veto, by George Washington, was a veto of Alexander Hamilton's formula for apportioning the House, and the one that Washington preferred was one that Thomas Jefferson produced, and that was one partisan issue. The apportionment formula that Jefferson produced gave an extra seat to Virginia. Everybody knew what that game was. [Laughs.] Look, partisan interest in the census is simply nothing new. Has there been damage over that period? Yes, on and off.

I think the sampling fight, whatever it was, was deeply unfortunate. The actual assertion that the Census Bureau could behave in such a way as to tilt things one way or the other way in the partisan sense, is, on the face of it, a silly charge. It's the same Census Bureau that's considered to be incompetent by some people, and then some of the same people are saying that this incompetent agency is so clever and so Machiavellian that it can design a census for partisan reasons. It just doesn't compute. Now, did [accusations of partisanship] damage the census? Yes, it damaged the idea of sampling. I like to tell the people I interact with who are against sampling, "Next time you want to go to the doctor for a blood test, don't say, 'I want you to take out a little bit,' say, 'Take out all of it!'" How else will you know? When you wake up in the morning and you want to find out whether it's raining, you don't look out every window of your house; you look out one window. There: You sampled. So the idea that we turned the word "sampling" into a dirty word is deeply, deeply damaging, not to the Census Bureau, but the idea of fiscal integrity. Every other number we use to govern society—unemployment numbers, trade statistics, health care, how many people are uninsured—all of those numbers are based on samples.

MJ: After President Obama was elected, you were the front-runner to become the next director of the Census Bureau. Even the New York Times endorsed you for this position. Why did you withdraw your name from the running?

KP: By the way, I don't know what the word "front-runner" means in that sense. I am aware that my name was mentioned, but who knows who the front-runner was or was not? At a certain point, I felt it more appropriate, because I had decided that I was not going to be able to relocate, to write a note that said, "If you are considering me, please don't." But I wouldn't say that I was a nominee who withdrew.

MJ: Why do you think Bob Groves' confirmation [to become the next director of the US Census Bureau] has been stalled?

KP: I wish I had a good answer to that question. I really do. Some large number of people were confirmed last week, but why he wasn't on that list, I don't know.

MJ: I noticed that Steve Jost [political appointee and former Census Bureau communications director] is back at the Census Bureau, and he was one of your deputies during the Clinton administration. Are many people who worked for the Census Bureau during the Clinton administration returning?

KP: In terms of political appointees, Jost is probably the only one. But hundreds of people at the Census Bureau were there during the Clinton administration.

MJ: Let's talk about President Obama's announcement last Friday that gay marriage would now be counted in the 2010 census. What exactly does that mean and how would it be done?

KP: Here I'm fairly confident that they have not worked out the exact operational procedures yet, because this was not expected when they were designing the questionnaire and designing the procedures. There isn't a good answer to your question yet, or at least I haven't seen it. Look, anytime you are doing something with 300 million people, it's not easy to get it right in different locales, however the question is worded on this now. Relationships in the household are on the short form.

MJ: Will the government be printing new forms now?

KP: No, it's impossible. You can't start reprinting new forms now. This stuff is already being printed. It takes a very long time and a lot of forward planning to run something of this magnitude.

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