Census, Uncensored

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

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.


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.

MJ: So how would gay households know that they count?

KP: Well, that's something that I can't answer because I haven't seen anything yet. There will be some serious effort by Census Bureau personnel to create an operational plan to make it work. I think they will go about this very seriously to make sure there aren't any errors in the data. They want to get it right. This is who they are and what they do.

MJ: Do you think that it's surprising that here we are, in the year 2009, and we're conducting the 2010 census without using technology for all parts of the operation?

KP: Let me put it as follows. I think the Census Bureau has been a technical innovator, certainly since the start of the 20th century. After all, it was the first agency to use the Hollerith Card, the old punch card which was married to an adding machine which became IBM. It invented sampling theory in the 1930s. It was the first federal agency to use a major mainframe in the 1950s. It was extremely adept in 2000 in doing intelligent character recognition and data capture using very, very high-tech processes. And I think you can say about 2010 that it was technically innovative in using [GPS] handhelds in address canvassing. I don't know the results yet, but I hope we've come out of this with a much better address list than we had in 2000.

MJ: But do these computers from the Harris Corporation even work properly? And were they designed properly?

KP: Well, I'm not in the position to judge that. They're doing quality studies on that right now.

MJ: I don't know if you've read on MyTwoCensus.com and other blogs where people have complained about the functionality of these devices.

KP: When you payroll 140,000 people, it's not hard to find people who are disgruntled. And I'm not saying they're wrong. I actually talked to people who did the address canvassing work, people I know extremely well, people who had no reason whatsoever not to tell me what was going on, and they had some problems, but they are convinced that they ended the process by producing a much better address list than when they went into it. And that's the test. Of course there's always somebody saying, "This didn't work" or "That didn't work." But the test is to ask, "Do we have a better address list?" And that's quality control judgment. I'm not trying to slam [MyTwoCensus.com], but you have to appreciate that you are getting a self-selected group of correspondents. But I'm not passing judgment on you, and you shouldn't pass judgment on the technology until the data are in. What I'm saying is that I don't think the people who are writing to bloggers are the people producing systematic data.

MJ: I understand that. So what are the greatest obstacles that remain for the 2010 census operation?

KP: The old ones. They haven't changed. One, you've got to start with a good address list. If it's a good one, good. If it's not, then you can't have a good census because that's your frame. And when you send nonresponse follow-up people, there's that. Secondly, you've got to hope for a decent mail-back response rate, because the workload goes way up and the costs go way up if you don't have a good mail-back response rate. And we simply do not yet know what the response rate is because we haven't done it yet. But if it's not in the mid-60s, it's going to be both budgetarily and operationally very difficult for the Census Bureau. And in 2000, we had expected to be in the low 60s, and we got into the mid- to high 60s and that was an enormous boost, and we did it with a first-rate effort. And I think that the people running the advertising campaign right now and all of the outreach are very good professionals, and I am hoping they are successful. But it's up to the American people to do it. What can the Census Bureau do, other than put it in their mailboxes on schedule? And if they [the American people] don't send it back in, they have to start knocking on the door. So there is the mail-back response rate and then there's the willingness to cooperate in nonresponse follow-up, and then there's the startling problem of the enormous number of undocumented in the country, who will have every reason not to want to cooperate with the federal government.

MJ: I know it's early, but what will people say when they look back on the 2010 census?

KP: I hope they say they pulled off a miracle. [Laughs.]

MJ: Will the 2010 census need a miracle?

KP: That's a quip, but I think it's going to be very, very difficult to do this census in the current environment. That has nothing to do with the Census Bureau's skill set. It has to do with the American people's not wanting to be bothered, not answering their mail, not having phone lines anymore because they got cell phones, and the Census Bureau wants to do follow-up on the phone, and they can't find phone numbers because they've only got the landline number. It has to do with the number of mobile people who would have changed houses between the time you did the address listing and when you knocked on the door. Houses will get torn down and houses will be built. The whole foreclosure crisis is a major crisis because whole hunks of the country are empty when they should be functioning neighborhoods. There are just a host of problems. And then there are the ones we can't predict. Who knows? Natural disasters, strikes, I can't tell you what's going to happen. I know it's going to be difficult; it's always difficult to do a serious census, especially with today's economic, political, and general cultural circumstances. Let me ask you a question. Let's say there are 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country. What percentage of those people do you think will mail a questionnaire back in?

MJ: Ten?

KP: Whatever it is, it's a low number. So let us say it's 50 percent. That's a 3 percent undercount before you start. Let us say it's 25 percent, and then you've got an even bigger undercount before you've even started.

MJ: So that's what explains the need for the use of statistical sampling?

KP: That's one of the reasons we were going to use it, but we can't. So that just means that you're doing a census knowing that you are going to miss a very significant proportion of the American population. And you're obligated to count everyone, so it's just an uphill battle.

Stephen Robert Morse is an intern at Mother Jones, and runs the website MyTwoCensus.com.