Inside the U.S. Census Bureau Part 4: From Citizen to Statistic

About the United States Census Bureau, how the count is taken and then how it is broken down, the consequences of 'short counts.'

Inside the Census Bureau: 1, 2, 3, 4 . . . and Counting . . .

How do I become a statistic? Census forms are designed so that the marked answers, recorded as blackened dots, can be optically scanned by FOSDIC--short for Film Optical Sensing Device for Input to Computers. FOSDIC "reads" the dot patterns made by the citizen or with the enumerator's help, and translates them into input data for the computers. The computers, in turn, digest, compile, summarize, and direct the output figures into "slave" high-speed equipment that prints out the final summaries, in sequential page-and-column format, ready for the Government Printing Office to publish.

Census Bureau headquarters are at Suitland, Md. The data-processing offices here are connected by tie lines to the clerical and paper-processing center at Jacksonville, Ind. Scattered around the U.S. are 12 regional offices. The department normally carries about 4,400 employees, hiring its thousands of part-time helpers as the workload peaks. Among its many slogans to pep up morale: "We can't know where we're going if we don't know where we're at."

Who counted the whole bag? The 50 States are divided into thousands of EDs, the "enumeration districts," varying in size from a few city blocks to an area as large as a county. The criterion: A unit must be covered by a single census taker in the time allotted. The schedules mailed out for the 1970 census were all coded for the "ED" number, and further identified by tract, ward, block, and street address. To insure that each address was covered once--and only once--the Bureau's geography division updated over 25,000 maps, where possible, to record changes in city and county growth patterns. Because of funding limitations, they concentrated on the 100,000 square mi. in the urban areas where over 53% of the people live.

1, 2, , 4 . . . Where were you, Mabel, on Census Day? The Bureau reported that the 1970 census, taken as authorized on April 1, missed about 5,300,000 people. Although 2/3 of these were white, the economic and political impact fell more heavily on the blacks where an omission of 1.88 million equaled 7.7% of the total black population, who roughly equal the entire citizenry of Canada. Chicanos were also among the missing, by comparable percentages.

Economically, the lower count meant less money would be available from Federal programs to help the poor. Funding is parceled out according to head count: Less People=Less Funding. Politically, representation suffered: Less People=Less Representation. The inner cities generally lost a voice or 2 in Government. Some black and Chicano leaders disputed the reported Census release on the minority percentage "not counted," claiming it may actually be as great as 15%.

The "short count" is due to many factors. The census enumerator is reluctant to enter the inner city, particularly at night, when the chances of being mugged, robbed, or raped (most interviewers are female) are greatest. The easiest people to overlook are the "floaters," with no permanent address. Others may have a regular "pad," but, like the swinging bachelor, be visiting elsewhere at the time. Some deliberately will disappear, or not answer the door, fearful that the information given out may get them in trouble with housing regulations or the law.

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