The U.S. census has recently been the subject of political argument. After contentious discussions before a congressional panel, John Thompson, the director of the Census Bureau, stepped down last week. To provide background information on the census and what it does, I interviewed Kenneth Prewitt, the Carnegie professor of public affairs and the vice president for global centers at Columbia University, and a former director of the Census Bureau, about how the census works, why it has become political and why it remains important.
HF: What is the U.S. census, and what exactly does it do?
KP: I start with the decadal census, which asks seven questions about every household in the nation. This every-10-year count is constitutionally mandated; it apportions the 435 members of the House of Representatives to the 50 states, proportionate to each state’s share of the total population. Since 1790, the first census, state populations have unevenly increased, and at times decreased. Repeated reallocation is fundamental to the fairness of our representative democracy.
The census also includes the American Community Survey (ACS), which by law is an extension of the basic decadal census. This survey is approximately 60 congressionally mandated questions that underpin government programs — ranging from where to place and how to staff veteran’s hospitals to emergency planning by every town and city in the country, from public health programs to designing transportation networks. The ACS is the country’s largest survey (after the decadal census), reaching enough people to provide great geographic detail — e.g., an accurate description of the characteristics — age structure for instance — of an area with as few as 15,000 residents. This detail is used by states and city educational systems when building new schools and by the policy and fire departments to deploy the right equipment when rushing to an emergency.