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Georgetown’s gain is Census Bureau’s loss

by Peter Wagner, August 22, 2012

Dr. Robert Groves with Peter Wagner

Dr. Robert Groves (left) at a February 2010 Congressional hearing, “2010 Census: Enumerating People Living in Group Quarters.”
Source: Our Time Press

On Friday, the Census Bureau lost its director when Robert Groves stepped down to be Provost of Georgetown University.

Director Groves was appointed to run the Census Bureau in 2009, with the 2010 Census rapidly approaching. Director Groves quickly put his stamp on the agency, working to cut costs and increase quality, while also working a tireless national travel schedule to promote participation in the Census. The 2010 Census was widely considered a success, and Dr. Groves deserves much of the credit.

Here at the Prison Policy Initiative, we wanted to highlight one of the less talked-about good news stories about the Census Bureau under Dr. Groves’s leadership. For the first time, the Census Bureau agreed to identify which census blocks contained group quarters, such as correctional facilities, early enough that state and local redistricting bodies can choose to use this data to draw fair districts.

As Dr. Groves explained on his blog: “This decade we are releasing early counts of prisoners (and counts of other group quarters), so that states can leave the prisoners counted where the prisons are, delete them from the redistricting formulas, or assign them to some other locale.”

Of course, we here at the Prison Policy Initiative have long urged the Census Bureau to count incarcerated people as residents of their home addresses; but this change was a big one. It didn’t require state or local governments to do anything differently, but it did give those government bodies more choices.

Director Groves further explained this change in his testimony to Congress:

The Census Bureau recently decided to provide an early release of 2010 Census counts of residents of group quarters in May 2011.

We will supply the block-level counts as defined by Public Law No. 94-171, used in redistricting activities in the states by the end March, 2011. We learned in discussions over the past few months with external stakeholders that providing a related tabulation might be useful to them. We also learned that the tabulation would be helpful to our partners in local and state governments, and in our own Count Question Resolution Program, which looks for anomalies in the census counts at low levels of geography.

To serve these needs the Census Bureau is preparing to release a planned table from our Summary File 1 product plan, the P-41 table, a few months earlier than the release of the entire Summary File 1 product, which is scheduled for release June through August 2011. This single table is not a special tabulation or a preliminary table—but an early release of a planned table to facilitate potential uses to a host of data users. […]

What this table provides is a tool for those public officials charged with the responsibility of redistricting their state legislative boundaries the opportunity to assess the significance of group quarters populations in their plans. This table does not remove prisoner populations from their respective census tabulation blocks. This table will not remove group quarters populations from the 2010 census totals. There should be no impact on the distribution of federal, state or local funds based upon the early release of this table. This release is consistent with providing the states with the tools they need to conduct their legislative redistricting.

I would like to stress that the Census Bureau does not participate in any redistricting activities. Our job is a completely nonpartisan, objective enumeration of the population. Simply put, the Census Bureau collects individual information and reports aggregates based on it. Fittingly, the Founding Fathers left it to the federal, state, and local governments to use the information for their political purposes. In that vein, the Census Bureau endeavors to compile the group quarters information in the Summary File for its key data users at the state and local level. How those levels of governments choose to use the data is squarely within their realm of authority.

This effort by the Census Bureau was a big success. As redistricting experts discussed two weeks ago in Chicago at the National Conference of State Legislatures conference, the early release of the prison count data was essential to the implementation of Maryland and New York‘s laws that counted incarcerated people at home. And at that meeting, I shared that I knew of at least 132 local governments that removed the prison populations prior to redistricting.

Georgetown’s gain is unfortunately the Bureau’s loss. I hope the President will appoint a replacement as soon as possible. The wellbeing of our nation depends on accurate data, and under Dr. Groves, the Census Bureau had a very huge success in the 2010 Census and already has begun planning for the next Census. The next Census might be more than 7 years away, but the Bureau is already hard at work. The best way to have the highest quality Census at the lowest possible cost is to ensure that the Bureau can benefit from strong permanent leadership for the entire decade.

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