What Goes Around…

Terri Ann Lowenthalby Terri Ann Lowenthal

I love the census. Unlike many things in life, it’s so… predictable.

Just like clockwork, it comes around every 10 years. Like it or not politically; controversy be damned; the U.S. Constitution requires a decennial population count, and the U.S. Supremes have sanctioned Uncle Sam’s right to gather a broad set of useful information about America as part of that drill.

And what goes around seems to come around with respect to many spokes on the census wheel. Take, for example, the way Congress views census oversight. Almost a quarter-century ago (do I know how to date myself, or what?), I became staff director of the House Subcommittee on Census and Population. The census had its own, clearly-marked oversight panel, befitting of the nation’s largest peacetime mobilization. Four years later, that panel morphed into the Subcommittee on Census, Statistics, and Postal Personnel. Okay, the U.S. Postal Service delivers census forms and provides updated address information for the Master Address File. But overseeing postal workforce issues while trying to monitor the nation’s vast statistical system? We scrambled to conduct the thorough monitoring the 1990 census required (especially since we also were responsible for federal holidays and observances … go figure).

The Senate had a dimmer view of census importance, tucking it into a panel with responsibility for energy, nuclear proliferation and federal services back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. After Republicans claimed the House majority in 1995, the census bounced around every two years or so, between subcommittees with oversight of national security, international affairs and criminal justice, to technology (prescient, in hindsight) and health care, although it managed to regain the spotlight briefly with its own panel during the 2000 count. More recently, Senate Democrats just wanted to test our powers of memorization by creating the Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security (known as FFM, for short, thank heavens).

So here we are in 2013, and House leaders have put on their interior decorating hats once again. The result: A new Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and the Census, chaired by second-term Rep. Blake Farenthold (R) of southern Texas, which sounds a lot like my old Committee on Post Office and Civil Service. The new chairman’s biography indicates past experience as a conservative radio talk show host, lawyer and web designer. We do know Rep. Farenthold supported the amendment last year to eliminate funding for the American Community Survey (ACS). I think stakeholders will need to dig out Census 101 materials and start the education process all over again.

Appreciation for the magnitude of census challenges is likely to be higher in the new Senate, now that former FFM subcommittee chair Tom Carper (D-DE) has assumed the top post on the full committee (Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs). And fortunately (or should I say, for better or worse?), Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) will continue to head the appropriations subcommittees (Commerce, Justice, and Science) that hold the Census Bureau’s purse strings. At least they know the drill.

Some census issues don’t so much repeat themselves as stay suspended in constant states of flux. The questions on race, ethnicity and ancestry are the most notable examples. The Census Bureau just announced it would drop the term “Negro” (one of several terms used to describe Blacks or African Americans in previous censuses) from the race question, starting with the 2014 American Community Survey (pending comments on its Federal Register notice, due February 25.)

You might ask what took so long. But before the 1990 census, when my lovable but firm census panel chairman, Rep. Mervyn Dymally (D-CA), raised a well-known eyebrow to question the reference, Census officials explained that some older Black Americans still identified with the term and that the Bureau had to reach all segments of this historically undercounted population any way it could. Rep. Dymally, also chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus at the time, demurred. But I think few would argue with dropping the reference now.

So the census seasons, they go ‘round and ‘round (there I go, dating myself again with ancient folk song references)… no time to get off the merry-go-round and snooze with a never-ending (we hope) American Community Survey and with planning for Census 2020 census well underway.

An Internet Census and the Digital Divide

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

In my last post, I gave a shout-out to my father, who I fear could be overlooked by a largely electronic census, given dad’s likely nonagenarian status in 2020. Older Americans uncomfortable with today’s gadgets are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to population groups that the Census Bureau might have difficulty reaching through the Internet.

It does seem like everyone is walking around with a smartphone glued to their ear, or reading their news or the latest Stephen King novel on a tablet. But the hard facts — gleaned from a Census Bureau survey on Internet usage — tell a different story.

In Exploring the Digital Nation: Home Broadband Internet Adoption in the United States, the Commerce Department reported that more than three-fourths (77 percent) of U.S. households own a computer, be it handheld or sitting on a desk or lap. But computer ownership and broadband adoption are not spread evenly across household income levels, race and ethnicity, age, level of education, disability status, and geographic location.

Consider a few of the reports specific findings:

  • Seventy-three percent of urban (metropolitan area) households use the Internet, compared to 62 percent in rural (non-metropolitan area) households. Seventy percent of urban households have broadband access; 57 percent of rural households do.
  • More than four-fifths of Asian households and roughly three-quarters of non-Hispanic White households use the Internet. Less than 60 percent of Black, American Indian and Alaska Native, and Hispanic households can access the Internet at home.
  • Forty-six percent of households with incomes below $25,000 have home Internet access, compared to 84 percent of households in the $50,000 – $75,000 income bracket. There also are significant broadband adoption differences by household income: Nearly 90 percent of households in the $75,000 – $100,000 income range access the Internet using broadband; only 43 percent of households in under-$25,000 group do.
  • Less than half of household heads with a disability use the Internet, compared to three-quarters of those without a disability.

A more fine-grained analysis of the data revealed greater variability by socio-economic characteristic; the department reported, for example, that less than 30 percent of Black rural homes whose head of household lacked a high school diploma use a computer. Commerce Under Secretary (and Deputy Secretary-designate) Rebecca Blank told reporters at a press briefing (11/8/11) that the large gaps in access to broadband and Internet use were “striking and not something we expected to see.”

For census apostles, the most worrisome aspect of the disparate access to computers and reliable Internet is that, to a significant degree, many population groups lagging behind technologically are historically harder to count in the census and prone to disproportionate undercounts. Furthermore, a quarter of households without Internet access cite affordability as a major barrier to this service. Current economic trends do not favor better financial circumstances for lower income households.

Earlier this fall, I mused about the lightening pace of technological change, which will present significant challenges for the Census Bureau as it designs a less-costly enumeration for 2020 over an eight-year span. No doubt, access to computers and the Internet will increase across all demographic subgroups with time. But as new technologies emerge, differential access to those tools is likely to persist.

All of these factors pose significant challenges for the Census Bureau, as it tries to balance the obvious advantages technology offers for ease of participation, operational efficiency and cost containment, with the need to count people who cannot or will not respond electronically. (To complicate the census planning process, U.S. Postal Service budget woes might slow the delivery of first-class mail across the country; Saturday delivery might also be a historical footnote by decade’s end.)

So, yes, I agree with Census Director Robert Groves that 2020 must be a “multi-mode census. … We must move beyond the mailback questionnaire and the personal interview … to ensure that the response options for the census reflect the communication platforms that people are using.” (Testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security, April 6, 2011.) But some of those modes will be more costly and traditional than others, and Congress must be mindful of the digital divide as it decides how much money to spend on planning and execution of the next decennial count.

 # # # 

From the Census Project family to yours:
Happy holidays and best wishes for 2012!
(REMEMBER: The next census is only eight years away!)