Monday, June 29, 2009

Biased Census? Biased Bachmann? One? The Other? Or Both?

Representative Michele Bachmann says she will refuse to completely fill out her 2010 Census questionnaire and risk a $5000 fine. Why? More on that later; first, a few things every informed community member should know about the census.

The U.S. Census has great importance. Census results influence electoral boundaries. The population totals from the census determine the number of representatives each state can have.
The census numbers also help establish the amount of Federal funding that states receive for many different programs.

Understanding major community trends cannot occur without the census (conducted every 10 years) and its counterpart, the American Community Survey (conducted annually). Marketing our businesses in Minnesota, maintaining a competitive edge, ensuring that we have a healthy population – the census facilitates all of these.

In my meetings with residents throughout the state during the past 6 months, in every region including Representative Bachmann’s district, people have expressed a hunger for accurate census data and other information, to empower them to build their communities. They want good information on what’s happening in education, health, economics; they want to know how their population has changed and how it’s likely to change. The census enables people to understand their communities – how many older people live there, how many residents have college degrees, how many residents own their homes, and so on. Businesses rely on the census to understand their customers.

We should not take lightly our obligation to respond to the census. Nor should we ignore the problems that an undercount produces for states and cities. Pricewaterhouse Coopers, at the request of Congress, analyzed the consequences of the fact that the 2000 census missed counting a large number of people. Their analysis shows that funding losses due to undercounting amounted to slightly more than $4 billion.

Minnesota was lucky in 2000; its undercount came to an estimated 14,000 people. Many other states had more serious undercounts. However, Minnesota’s luck may not continue, especially if public officials send out negative messages about the census. In fact, we could lose a Congressional seat if the undercount becomes too large.

Why is Bachmann negative? Because, according to what she told The Washington Times on June 18, ACORN “will be in charge of going door-to-door and collecting data from the American public... This is very concerning." On this point – that ACORN will go door-to-door – please note that Bachmann has it totally wrong. Only Census Bureau employees will collect census information. ACORN and other national organizations have signed on as “partners” with the Census Bureau to spread the word that the census needs good participation and wants to recruit staff who know local communities.

The one and only point of agreement which I share with Representative Bachmann on this issue relates to her concern that the Census Bureau’s inclusion of ACORN as one of its hundreds of partners taints an objective process in which we would like to place our trust. ACORN has definitely led some questionable initiatives which have alienated very good people who care about all members of our communities, rich and poor. Their reputation is a stumbling block regardless of their current intentions. Maybe ACORN should have been banned from partnering with the census. However, the Census Bureau has not been selective in approving partners; it’s pretty much “come one, come all” if you have connections valuable to reaching under-represented populations. ACORN does have those connections.

However, we should rise above the ACORN discussion to raise a larger issue. Important information, used for policy purposes, should be scientifically valid and politically credible to people of many different persuasions. At Wilder Research, we emphasize the use of advisory groups comprised of people from as many perspectives and political points of view as we can find. (Our Compass project enlisted 300+ members of the community, not all of whom agreed with one another, to establish credible measures of our communities’ well-being.)

To its credit, the Census Bureau recognizes the importance of enlisting a vast range of partners. The Bureau’s list grows every day. I took a look. The first page lists 100 Black Men of America, along with 7-Eleven – both excellent groups, with their own distinctive competencies to reach into communities. I went to Letter A partners. Alongside ACORN, I found: Association for University Business and Economic Research; Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs; ASPIRA Association; Asian Pacific American Medical Student Association; Association of Professors and Scholars of Iranian Heritage; Association of Public Data Users; and Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. That seems like a good range, and these represent just a few of hundreds.

The lesson: Always challenge information you receive. Question its source. Understand its limitations. If you find yourself gathering or putting together information, request advice from people with vastly different points of view. Some with extreme points of view will never be satisfied, except with their own contrived data. However, most people are reasonable, and they will agree on what constitutes good information, even if they then disagree about what the information means.

Representative Bachmann does not seem to understand this, but neither do many other public officials, both liberal and conservative. On behalf of all members of our communities, from the most powerful to the most vulnerable, we need to educate public officials to use scientifically sound and politically credible information. So much depends on it.

(If you want to see the list of Census Bureau partners, visit their web site. For Compass, visit the Compass web site.)