Census Bureau Policy Costs Ohio’s Cities Population

by Peter Wagner, July 5, 2004

The Census Bureau counts prisoners not at their homes but as if they were residents of the town that contained the prison. This administrative quirk reduces the population of the urban communities where most prisoners originate and swells the population of the rural communities that house prisons. Ohio now incarcerates more than 3 times as many people as it did as recently as 1980, making what would once be a trivial issue into a critical one.

Urban areas suffer, prison counties gain

All of Ohio’s major cities see a reduction in their Census population from how prisoners are counted. Although there are small state prison facilities in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) Montgomery County (Dayton) and Franklin County (Columbus) the small gain is overshadowed by the loss. Cuyahoga County has 11,167 residents in prison with 10,441 incarcerated in other counties. The Census shows Hamilton County with 5,235 fewer people. This population is instead credited to the counties that contain the prisons. Pickaway County has a Census population of 53,437, but 5,583 of those people are actually prisoners from other parts of the state.

Thankfully, Census Bureau policy on how to count the population is not fixed, instead it responds to changing needs. When evolving demographics meant more college students studying far from home and more Americans living overseas, the Census policy changed in order to more accurately reflect how many Americans were living where. Today, the growth in the prisoner population requires the Census to update its methodology again. Otherwise, Ohio’s urban communities are going to find themselves shortchanged in the 2010 Census.

map showing the 88 Ohio counties and the loss to each urban county and the gain to counties with prisons from the Census Bureau

Figure 1. Ohio’s largest cities lose sizable population to a Census Bureau quirk that counts the incarcerated as if they lived in their remote prison cells.

Source: Peter Wagner and Rose Heyer Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Ohio

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