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Census and Sensibility

"You want a good count both because you want to have your representation and because you want to get the resources your community needs," says demographer Steve Murdock.

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All across Texas, households are theoretically preparing to participate in the 2010 census, which begins next week. Just how important is it that everyone get counted? "It’s very critical," says Steve Murdock.

Murdock, a professor of sociology at Rice University in Houston, has twice been listed among the most influential Texans — by now-defunct Texas Business in 1997 and by Texas Monthly, which dubbed him “The Prophet” in 2005. He was appointed the first state demographer of Texas in 2001. In 2007, George W. Bush tapped him to be the director of the U.S. Census Bureau.

On Monday, with the census looming, I interviewed Murdock about the process, the people and the politics involved in the massive undertaking of getting everyone here and in the rest of the country counted. (I also interviewed him about the changing demographics of Texas; that segment of our Q&A will be published tomorrow.)


In his campaign stump speech, Gov. Rick Perry likes to talk about the new [U.S.] representatives Texas will get after the census. What’s coming our way and who gets credit for it?

Well, population growth probably can’t be attributed to one man or one woman or one anything. I’m not a redistricting expert, but I think most analyses are that Texas is going to get three or four new representatives. 

There are two reasons that the census is most important. One, of course, is reapportionment. Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution mandates a census as a way of discerning your apportionment of the Congress. The other is because the Census estimates that about $435 billion a year — $4.3 trillion a decade — are allocated from the federal government to state entities on the basis of census figures. So you want a good count both because you want to have your representation and because you want to get the resources your community needs. It’s very critical. All the analyses suggest that Texas will get at least three [more seats in Congress], unless there’s something drastically different than we think.

There are a number of news stories about counties encouraging undocumented immigrants to participate. Is that a way for them to game the system?

It’s not gaming. The U.S. Constitution says that you count everybody who resides. It doesn’t say you count just citizens. We’ve always counted everybody, although in the early censuses, when we got to reapportionment, we counted slaves as 3/5 of a person after 1790 and for several decades thereafter. But everyone is always counted because the Constitution does not say "citizens of the United States" — it says people residing. So the undocumented should be there. In terms of the census, it doesn’t differentiate. It’s got to count everybody.

What would happen if you didn’t count them?

In Texas, you get different figures, but the implications are somewhere in between 1.3 and 1.7 million people. That certainly is enough to change one of those figures in terms of number of representatives. Look at it from the standpoint of, whether I’m legal or illegal, I drive on your roads, I probably have people in school, I use services. And so an area that has me needs to get paid for me. But as an agency and an entity, the census job is not to differentiate but to count, and to count correctly, and in the right location. “Once, only once, and in the right place” is its model.

I think everybody has recognized that there are some factors that make this census difficult. One is that all the data we have from the past suggests censuses are easier in good economic times than in bad economic times. People are more willing to cooperate when everything’s going well than when you’re knocking at their door and they don’t know how they’re going to pay for their rent or their electricity bill. Then, somebody at your door wanting to count you is an irritant rather than something else.

We do have lot of division in this county about immigration, particularly undocumented immigration. It’s interesting — that’s cutting a couple of different ways. One is that there’s a set of folks who say they speak for part of the undocumented community and say, “We’re not going to let ourselves be counted because then some of these people in Congress will see that they need to include us more and treat us better in terms of immigration reform or it will cost them money.” Hopefully that’s a small group. More organized groups, like NALEO [National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials], are pushing for a complete count. So there’s an immigration issue. 

There’s also a housing issue. The census is actually a census of housing units, from which we get households, from which we get individuals. That’s really what the census does. But when you have households that have been foreclosed on, and people who have left them. You have people who are close to foreclosure and their desire to answer the door may not be as high as yours or mine is. There are a lot of factors that have nothing to do with the capabilities of the census that will make this census difficult. I hope that they do very well.

What happens to the homeless population?

The census actually works with shelter groups and soup kitchens and so forth. They will have one or more shelter nights where they go to shelters and count everyone who’s there. They won’t get a lot of characteristics, but they will get numbers. They’ve been working with soup kitchens and Salvation Army and all of the various things. What they don’t do, I think for obvious reasons, is send enumerators into abandoned buildings to find people and ask people if they want to be counted.

I think everybody knows that’s a very difficult population to deal with. It’s large in absolute terms. It’s not large in proportional terms. I think the Census Bureau does about everything you could expect an entity to do to do that. I can’t speak for the new director, but I think most people feel those are probably low counts, but I’m convinced that the census does the best that any entity could do to get that count.

How big a deal is this for politicians?

I’ll tell you one thing: People in Congress have different interests on different topics like education and defense, but they all have an interest in the census. Even if their state is gaining, the chances that their district won’t be the same as it was last time is there. Unless you have exactly the same number of reps that you had last census — even then you’ll redistrict. Who will do the redistricting in the state will have a lot to say about if you can get your seat back. So they are all — all — very interested about census issues and very concerned about how many people are in their district.


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