What the census will get wrong

by Aleks Kajstura, November 6, 2009

The U.S. Census is once again gearing up to count incarcerated people in the wrong place. This census data is soon going to be used to redraw districts at all levels of government throughout the country.

In “What the census will get wrong,” Mary Sanchez, of the Kansas City Star, writes, emphasizing the inconsistency between the Census Bureau’s “patriotic pitches to comply,” and the Census’ method of counting people in prison. According to Sanchez, we’re told that “[e]very breathing soul must be tallied during the massive federal endeavor, the national headcount taken every decade. The census is central to the functioning of our democracy….”

Sanchez correctly notes, however, that the Census reassigns prison populations. The Census data allows legislative districts to pad their numbers using disenfranchised constituents pulled from remote cities. The communities that have high incarceration rates lose their currently incarcerated residents in this count. Sanchez writes:

Criminals forfeit a lot when they get locked up. They lose the right to vote, in all but two states. They lose daily interaction with loved ones and the chance to engage in meaningful work.

The communities of origin for those incarcerated should not be similarly punished.

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