With over 300 million people living in 50 states, it is a tremendous challenge to effectively, efficiently and accurately count the country’s population. But despite its magnitude, one former University professor is taking the challenge head-on as the person responsible for the 2010 Census.
Robert Groves, director of the United States Census Bureau and former director of the University’s Survey Research Center, is the man charged with leading that effort and he says he fully recognizes the magnitude of this “deeply constitutional mandate.”
“(The Census) repaints the portrait of America every ten years. It tells us who we’ve become and almost every decade begins a conversation of who we want to be,” Groves said in an interview with The Michigan Daily earlier this week.
“Article 1, Section 2 (of the Constitution) specifies that we will do a census every ten years to reapportion the House of Representatives,” Groves said. “Since 1790, when the first Census was done, there have been laws passed by Congress that return taxpayer money to local areas based on population counts, and the population counts come from the census. So, the fair share of those monies depends on accurate census participation.”
Groves was nominated by President Barack Obama last April to lead the Census Bureau. Groves said he was very surprised to find out he had been selected by the President, saying “it’s not the kind of job you seek out.”
“I was sitting innocently in my office one day, one Friday, grading graduate student draft papers, as I recall, and I got a phone call from the White House and that began a long series of discussions,” Groves said.
Though he was nominated last April, Groves did not take office until July because Senate Republicans held up his nomination.
Many Republican senators raised concerns that Groves would apply statistical modifications to account for what some studies have shown to be an underrepresentation of the poor and certain ethnicities in the census.
In his testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee during his confirmation hearings, Groves said he would not use any arithmetic adjustments in the census.
“Statistical adjustments will not be used for redistricting,” Groves said at the time.
During the early 1990s Groves worked as an assistant director at the Census Bureau. During that time, Groves argued for the implementation of statistical adjustments in the census because millions of people were undercounted in the 1990 enumeration.
Lisa Neidert, a senior research associate in the University’s Population Studies Center and a former colleague of Groves, said he has proven his critics wrong.
“A lot of people were skeptical of the fact that he’s a statistical expert, a sampling expert,” she said. “People were worried that the Census was going to be making up people. He has quieted all of the people who were against him in Congress. They are now realizing how good of a job he’s doing.”
As director of the Census Bureau, Groves said one of his primary objectives is to raise awareness about the Census and to encourage people to fill out their census forms. Groves was featured in both Time Magazine and The Washington Post and taped a segment for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” to promote the Census.
“A lot of my life right now is trying to get the word out,” Groves said.
On campus, the Institute for Social Research and the Office of the Provost have been spearheading efforts to encourage students to fill out the census. The offices sponsored a contest for students to produce videos that encouraged student participation in the census.
The University’s chapter of College Democrats won the competition and received a $1,000 prize. With 13 entries, Neidert, who co-chaired the competition, said that though none of the videos have gone viral, the competition was a success in terms of raising awareness.
“The winning videos were pretty much chosen by popular vote and the reason we did that is whoever created the videos would try to get their friends, classmates, etc. to vote for them and that spread the word a lot better than this middle-aged committee sitting around choosing what the best videos are,” Neidert said.
Neidert said the reason the ISR chose to sponsor the video contest is because census participation among college students is typically very low, resulting in too low of a population count in college towns like Ann Arbor.
Data from the Census Bureau’s website showed that, as of yesterday, only about 30 percent of all households in student neighborhoods in Ann Arbor had returned their census forms, compared to about 60 percent of households in other areas of Ann Arbor.
Groves said he thinks the reason many students don’t complete the census is because they are unsure whether they should fill out a form for themselves, or whether their parents should include them on their census.
“If you think about it, most of college students, last decade, their parents filled out their census form (and) they were at home,” Groves said. “For the first time, for many of them, they’re on their own — either in the dorm or off campus — and it’s their responsibility for the first time. So it’s a new request that the country is making of them and that’s a real reason, I think, for the undercount.”
Individuals — including people who are not United States citizens — are required to fill out a census form at the location where they live for a majority of the year.
But that burden will be lessened this year as the Census is using a shorter form than in the past. Typically, there has been a long form and short form. This year though, the Census only has the short form, which is comprised of 10 questions.
William Frey, a University research professor and a senior fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. said the shorter form is conducive to higher participation and makes it easier for census officials to obtain basic information on the populace.
“They felt that the census form, just being the short form rather than the long form, would be easier to administer and much easier for respondents,” Frey said.
Frey said the change was likely the result of pressure from constituents who contacted government officials with complaints about the longer form.
“They got, I think, a little bit of political pushback, negative political response,” Frey explained. “People called up their congresspeople and so forth saying, ‘Why are we getting these long forms to fill out. It’s a big imposition on me.’ ”
An even shorter form will be distributed to students living in residence halls. Every student living in a residence hall needs to fill out a census form, but students living off campus only need to fill out one form per household.
University Housing spokesman Peter Logan said census forms will be delivered to students in the residence halls today. They should be turned in to each residence hall’s community center, Logan said.
Census officials will be in every University residence hall today to distribute the forms, Logan said. He went on to say that each census staffer will receive a list of all the students living in the hall.
“They will obtain a very simple roster from each residence hall leader who is assigned to do this,” Logan said. “This roster is simply, and no more than, a list of students living in that residence hall on April 1 by name and room number. There is no other information provided.”
If all forms are not in by April 8, Logan said census officials would return to the residence halls and knock on doors to obtain the information.
Logan said multiple e-mails have been sent to students to remind them of the census. He added that an e-mail was sent to the parents of every student to let them know that students need to fill out their own census form and should not be included on their parents’ form.
“It’s vital that everyone be counted,” Logan said. “And don’t think that the parents are going to count them on the form that goes to the parental home address. We really need the students to fill out the forms they get right here in Ann Arbor.”