The distortion of Census data caused by counting people in prisons is “Too Big To Ignore”

by Peter Wagner, April 12, 2004  

Rose Heyer and I will release a new report tomorrow: Too big to ignore: How counting people in prisons distorted Census 2000. The report is the first national look at the impact of prisoner enumeration policies on the county population size, growth, race, ethnicity, gender and income. The Census counts prisoners as if they were residents not of their homes but of the prison town. The report concludes that due to modern uses of Census data and high incarceration rates, the impact is now too big to ignore. It’s time to update the Census Bureau’s method of counting the incarcerated and start counting prisoners at their home addresses.

Findings include:

  • Twenty one counties in the United States have at least 21% of their population in correctional facilities.
  • One out of every 50 counties reported as growing during the 1990s actual saw a decline in the actual population. New prison cells made these counties appear to be growing.
  • Census data report rapidly growing Black populations in rural white counties. This population consists not of willing migrants but primarily of prisoners moved to the county for temporary incarceration.
  • Many counties report concentrations of Latino adults without many children. These too are frequently the results of a prison in the community.
  • Many of the counties where unmarried men outnumber unmarried women are counties with large male prisons. This ratio is useful for government planning, but due to the impact of prisons is difficult to use below the state level.
  • Inclusion of prisoners in per-capita income figures complicates efforts to study and address rural and urban poverty.

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  • September 21, 2016:
    Executive Director Peter Wagner will be speaking at Claremont McKenna College in California. Details TBA.

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