Monday April 21, 2014 Full Website »

Census Accuracy Report Shakes Up Municipal Challenges

Census Accuracy Report Shakes Up Municipal Challenges
Shutterstock

The U.S. Census Bureau thinks it did a pretty good job back in 2010. The agency recently released the results of a post-Census analysis showing that its decennial count of the country was nearly as accurate as intended, with only a slight overcount that is not statistically significant.

That's great news for an entity with the complicated task of counting everyone in the entire country. But the Census Bureau's seeming success may be a bit disheartening to more than 100 cities across the country that have formally challenged the Bureau's results, arguing that their populations are larger – and sometimes much larger. According to this analysis, those cities are wasting their time. If anything, the Bureau says, it may have overcounted the nation's population by a small margin.

This post-Census survey reviews the numbers for all people not living in "group quarters," such as nursing homes or college dorms – about 2.6 percent of the population. According to this survey, there are actually about 36,000 fewer people than the 300,703,000 originally counted. That's a 0.01 percent over-estimation – considerably better than the 0.49 percent overcount in 2000 and the 1.61 percent undercount in 1990.

The Bureau also notes that there was no statistically significant undercount or overcount of the populations in any counties or cities of 100,000 or more people.

This post-Census survey is only one of three different measures of the quality of the count, so it shouldn't be solely relied upon as a check of the accuracy of the Census. The Bureau also reports that this analysis is better suited to verifying the accuracy of counts in mid-sized and larger cities, so smaller cities may still see a benefit to continuing their challenges, a process those cities have to pay for. Often, it's worth the chance and the cost. Federal funding is distributed to states and down to cities based on population. Each person pulls in about $1,500. The undercount of even a few hundred people can lead to a deep cut in the budget of a small town, which is why the Census Bureau has a formalized Count Question Resolution program for cities to contest their numbers.

As of May 17, 148 challenges have been filed [PDF] by towns, cities, and counties to contest the results of the 2010 Census. (Some cities have more than one challenge filed.) Of those 148 challenges, 56 have resulted in official changes so far. Twenty-nine resulted in no changes.

New York City formally challenged the Census Bureau's count in August, arguing that a significant amount of housing had mistakenly been noted as vacant – discrepancies that potentially undercounted the city's population by nearly 250,000 people. The Census Bureau rejected that challenge in April.

In February, Chicago announced that it, too, would be challenging the Bureau's official count. The city lost about 200,000 people between 2000 and 2010 according to Census numbers, but city officials think the loss was less drastic and that the miscount could be costing the city millions.

But given these latest results, mid-sized and large cities – like Chandler, Arizona and Chicago – might want to rethink their own second-guessing.

Top image: Darren Brode/Shutterstock.com

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

Join the Discussion