March 30, 2001
Will This Be the Last Census?
For number crunchers, life just got good. The results of the granddaddy of all surveys, the 2000 decennial Census, have started to trickle out of Washington, providing us with a comprehensive, up-to-date, and incredibly detailed statistical description of who we are and what we do. Despite formidable logistical, budgetary, and political hurdles, the folks at the Bureau of the Census have done their usual outstanding job in carrying out what has always been an underappreciated task.
In fact, all of us who shamelessly use the results of the decennial Census to make ourselves appear smarter than we actually are owe the Bureau a tremendous debt of gratitude. Over the course of the next six months, thousands of planners, business people, and researchers will acquire the kind of information on the population that will change the way we think about ourselves.
But there are also a few ironies in process that produced the 2000 Census. For example, thanks to the internet, the results of the Census can be instantly distributed. Indeed, statisticians and the press have been in a state of readiness for some time, preparing to assemble stories, graphs and interpretations of Census results for their audiences the moment they arrive. In the information age, we expect no less.
But the decennial Census is not a product of the information age, and every year that elapses in the ten-year wait for new data rams home this point. The illusion of up-to-date knowledge that arrives with the fresh results vanishes as one moves further from the beginning of each decade and the data grow stale. In the fastest growing parts of the state, the information from the 1990 Census is almost irrelevant.
This need for more up-to-date information on population has motivated one of the biggest new projects ever taken on by a Federal statistical agency, known as the American Community Survey. Already well along, the Bureau's ACS promises to deliver the rich detail we've always associated with the decennial Census on a much more timely basis. Using the tools of the modern statistical trade, the ACS will enable populous areas, such as major cities, access to new estimates every year, with somewhat wider time intervals governing the distribution of results for smaller areas.
That's welcome news for information-starved decision-makers in both the public and the private sectors, who will be better equipped to steer their organizations through the changing currents of the marketplace. In fact, with an armload of intra-decade ACS results at their disposal, for many of them the production of the decennial Census will become a non-event.
Given the frightful costs of carrying out the antiquated enumeration of our populace every ten years, and the rising bitterness of the political debate that surrounds each exercise, that may be the best outcome for all concerned. That assessment stems from perhaps the most stinging irony of all when it comes to the Census. Namely, as the costs of distributing data fall to practically nothing in the digital age, the costs of collecting it are skyrocketing, both in the political and financial sense.
That's why the ACS project -- whose full funding has not yet been guaranteed by Congress -- will probably come to take the place of the decennial Census, at least as it exists today. The flexibility, power and efficiency of survey methods are a better investment in information than the billions we burn every ten years knocking on every door in America.
About the Author
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