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Is it Fast or is it Slow: The Reality of U.S. Population Growth ( a text version)

This essay addresses many of the points made in the first (Chapters One and Two) and the fourth videos in my series.  It includes full references, so those hoping to confirm statements made in the videos will likely find what they need in the list of citations at the end.  If you have a specific question about the video content, feel free to e-mail me at progressivepopulationist@gmail.com

Feel free to briefly quote from this article with proper attribution. If you are an editor and would like to see a version of this piece tailored to your publication’s needs, please send inquiries to the e-mail address above.

Did  the U.S. Census Bureau Implement a Policy of Obfuscation

by Downplaying the Resurgence in U.S. Population Growth

as It Released the 2010 Census Results?

ABSTRACT

The article considers whether the Census Bureau has bowed to political pressure by presenting the results of the 2010 in ways that consistently understate the pace of US population growth.  It documents the way in which, in presenting the results of the 2010 Census to the country, the Census Bureau consistently chose language and intertepretation of data conducive to a perception that US population growth was occurring at a historically low rate, obscuring the anomolous nature of the resurgent U.S. growth over the past two decades. A focus on percentage analysis and a near-total omission of numerical patterns resulted in a core message that emphasized slowing growth, which the American media accepted as an accurate summation of current growth patterns. The article parses in detail the various statements by Census Director Robert Groves and contrasts the key Census Bureau graphic from the 2010 presentation with the one used in 2000, which more clearly indicated the exceptional numerical growth of the 1990s.

It must have to have a surprise to Joel Kotkin, author of a handful of books on American political and economic life, to have heard Census Director Robert Groves’ answer when Washington Journal host Peter Slen asked him what he found most surprising about the 2010 Census results. In his list of three surprising aspects of the data, Groves included “ . . .. the slowing of growth.” I suspect this was surprising to Kotkin because he had just written a book, published by Penguin Press earlier that year, about the surprising acceleration in the pace of U.S. population growth. Groves, in contrast, referred repeatedly to a slowing of growth throughout his three televised appearances in the week of December 21st, 2010.   Indeed, in rolling out the 2010 Census results for the American people, the Census Director never offered any analysis remotely consistent with the premise of Kotkin’s The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, which began as follows:

This book is inpired by a remarkable fact: in stark contrast to its more rapidly aging rivals in Europe and Asia, America’s population is expected to expand dramatically in coming decades.  According to the most conservative estimates, the United States by 2050 will be home to at least four hundred million people, roughly one hundred million more than live here today. (Kotkin, 2010:1)

As might be inferred from this enthusiastic start to Kotkin’s book (unless otherwise indicated, emphasis in all quoted material has been added.), he sees about America’s resurgent population growth as a trend conducive to a brighter American future.  As the book jacket summarizes, “This projected rise in population is the strongest indicator of our long-term economic strength, Joel Kotkin believes, and will make us more diverse and more competitive than any nation on earth.” Syndicated columnist Michael Barone, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the principal author of The Almanac  of American Politics, provided the lead endorsement for the back cover. Kotkin is a Distinguished Presidential Fellow at Chapman University, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other national publications. He had also trumpeted about the rapid pace of US demographic expansion in a Newsweek article in April of that year.

. . ..we don’t have to wait for the census results to get a basic picture of America’s demographic future. The operative word is “more”: by 2050, about 100 million more people will inhabit this vast country, bringing the total U.S. population to more than 400 million. (Kotkin, April 26, 2010)

Such contrasts might be expected if the Census results that came out the following December  differed substantially from the data upon which this author had based his descriptions of accelerating growth. The Census results, however, were highly consistent with what Kotkin and other observers had expected. And Kotkin was far from alone in describing U.S. demographic growth as increasingly rapid. Even after the release of the Census numbers, other analysts announced unequivocally that U.S. growth has been robust in the past two decades.

Derek Hoff, a professor of history at Kansas State University and the author of the forthcoming The State and the Stork: The Population Debate and Policymaking in United States History (University of Chicago Press), was interviewed for a PBS segment on the politics of population growth in April 2011. He shares Kotkin’s view that, in contrast to the slow growth described by the Cenus Bureau, U.S. growth is accelerating at a historically significant pace. As he wrote in a companion piece on the PBS web site:

The population of the United States is nearly 312 million, and projected to become 440 million by 2050. The U.S. has a higher fertility rate than such middle-income nations as Turkey, Chile and Brazil and is a demographic outlier among wealthy industrialized nations, many of which will see their populations decline in the coming decades. . ..

. . ..a majority of American social scientists, policymakers and talking heads are celebrating the nation’s remarkable demographic enlargement.(Hoff, 2011)(Hoff, 2011)

More recently, Ben Wattenberg, America’s best-known living cheerleader for rapid population growth, wrote a June 2012 piece for the Wall Street Journal entitled, “America’s 21st Century Population Edge.”  In this essay, after comparing the demographic trends in the U.S. with that of the rest of the industrial world, he summarized:
All this and more yields an America that is projected to have 400 million people in 2050, up from 310 million today and possibly on the way to 500 million by 2100. This may not quite play out—immigration from Mexico will likely fall as Mexican fertility drops off—but the trend lines are far stronger in the U.S. than elsewhere.

With these well-informed sources unambigously describing U.S. population growth as remarkably fast and unique among large industrial societies, how and why did the Census Bureau provide analysis that consistently downplayed the level of growth revealed by the 2010 Census?  The Census Bureua was looking at the same raw numbers that these commentors had seen, but characterized that data very differently.

This puts me in mind of a scene from the movie, “Annie Hall,” in which the character Alvy, played by Woody Allen, described his frequency of lovemaking to his therapist as “Hardly ever, maybe three times a week.” Alvy’s girlfriend, meanwhile, described their frequency of lovemaking to her therapist as, “Constantly. I’d say three times a week.”  In examples such as these, two different people have categorized the same data in far different ways not out of an intent to deceive, but from the perspective of how that data fits their concept of what number would be optimal.  Other examples abound, however, of people providing strongly divergent analysis of identical data not out of perceived optimums, but with the intent of influencing public opinion. In economic debates, in divining the evidence for an implications of climate change, in anticipating the outcome of elections, it is a very common practice for political entities to disagree over the interpretation of mutually accepted raw data, to sometimes decrease, and sometimes increase, in the eyes and ears of the persuadable public, the perception of a given value of interest.

Thus we see a collection of individuals with at least nominal credibility in the field of demography stating that U.S. growth is, to paraphrase these neurotic lovers from the movie, “Rapid and resurgent, a stunning 27.5 million this past decade.” And on the other hand, you have the Director of the Census Bureau saying, “Almost stagnant, barely 9.7% this past decade.”  So who is right? Which side best reflects our demographic profile at this historical moment?

If there is an objective basis upon which one can view the claims of slowing growth as disingenous, it would have to be the startling contrast between the population growth forecasts produced by the Census Bureau in 1989 and the results of the 2010 Census. Although the 2010 results are highly consistent with Census Bureau’s 2008 population projections, they contrast dramatically with what had been expected for our country’s demographic future just twenty years earlier. At that time, the middle series forecast had anticipated that we would reach a population of about 300 million people around the year 2027, and then remain at or near that number for about a decade before gradually dropping. (US Census Bureau, 1989)  Against this forecast, the passage of our 300-million-person threshold, just seventeen years later rather than the nearly forty years anticipated as of 1989, seems jarringly inconsistent with the Census Director’s description of “ . . ..a slowing of growth.” Certainly, when looking at growth patterns leading up to 1990, our growth since that time does not readily call to mind a downward trend.

Some will argue, nonetheless, that percentage rate of growth is sufficiently comprehensive to serve as the sole basis upon which to characterize our population growth.  In the field of demography, it is certainly possible to slice and dice the data, to peel back some layers of the onion and to leave others unexposed, in ways that best support a desired interpretation. Given this, it would seem from a close examination of the materials produced by the Census Bureau, and by the statements of the Census Director, that the nation’s leading statistical agency emphasized only those layers that point to a slowing of growth. In particular, the consideration of percentage analysis, which favors a perception of slowing growth, was given the highest priority in their analysis, and the absolute numerical growth, along with any other considerations which might suggest an increase in the pace of growth, are all but omitted from their statements and materials. Taken as a whole, it seems that the Obama administration has instructed the Census Bureau to present the results of the 2010 Census, without falsifying the data, in such a fashion as to encourage a prevailing sense that U.S. population growth is occurring at a historically slow pace. As it looks now, they may have succeeded in doing so.

The public appearances by Groves provide the most striking examples of language that consistently suggests a slowing a slowing of growth.  In the first of these appearances, at the National Press Club on the morning of December 21st, 2010, Groves followed up a presentation of the estimated size of the U.S. population with a discussion of “ . . ..the pattern of population change.” He introduced this segment as follows:

Over the last 100 years, the rate of growth in the U.S. population has gradually slowed. This is true in many developed societies. But there is a lot of variation across the decades, as you can see by the red line on this graphic. (Groves, NPC)

Figure 1: Census Bureau graph presenting results of 2010 CensusCB2010graph

The graphic behind him (Figure 1) showed a red line indicating per-decade percentage of growth against a backdrop showing the overall population size over time.  This clearly de-emphasized the per-decade numerical growth in favor of the more volatile fluctuations in percentage rate. Groves then offered an interpretation of that graphic, describing the slow growth of the 1930s and the rapid growth of the 1950s, before concluding,  “The percentage growth of this past decade– as I stated earlier, 9.7% — is thus the second lowest of the past century.” Groves paused before making the above statement, then paused after it, looked directly into the camera for a second, then looked back down to his notes before continuing. In subsequent appearances that week, he avoided repeating that point in his own words.

When Groves appeared on the PBS Newshour that same night for a brief report, host Judy Woodruff provided a similar summary of the data as she introduced the segment.  That introduction included the following:

First, the overview — the latest count released today shows the U.S. population has grown to more than 308 million people. But the rate of growth slowed from past decades, from a little — to a little less than 10 percent between 2000 and 2010. In fact, that marks the slowest rate of population growth over the course of a decade since the Great Depression.(PBS Newshour)

Woodruff then previews the parameters of the data she is about to present, introduces the Census Director, then invites him to elaborate on this summary: “So we have grown as a people, but not as fast as in previous decades?”

To which, Census Director Groves responds:

Absolutely. This is the first decade that we have gone over the 300 mark. So, it’s a notable event for that. Your mention of the 9.7 percent increase is also a notable thing. But that’s the result of a long-run trend, of gradually slowing the growth of the population.

This is very common in developed societies. Around the world, most of the developed world is slowing its rate of growth. This has to do with changes in fertility experiences in the population. And, also, even though all of these countries are experiencing immigration, that isn’t the — the net effect is a slowing of the growth.

Consider for a moment the significance of the Census Director’s use of the word “Absolutely,” to answer Woodruff’s lead question. While Groves answered the question in the affirmative, because Woodruff’s prompt did not specify percentage rate of growth, it is arguably a false statement. But Groves answered it not just affirmatively but emphatically.

Although he did not issue these words himself, by replying with an emphatic affirmative, the Census Director was essentially telling the American people, without specifying the percentage rate of growth, that by all meaningful standards our population growth had slowed down in recent decades.

This is troubling on several counts. As already pointed out, the statement is accurate only if one assumes that it pertains to percentage rate of growth, which it does not specify. Other measures show a resurgence of growth over the past half century.

Secondly, as the Census Director surely appreciates, percentage rate of growth is not a comprehensive indicator of the impacts from that growth. In looking at many aspects of economics and quality of life, in planning our energy future with a goal of independence from foreign sources,  and especially in anticipating environmental impacts, the numerical growth is a more relevant indicator of impacts than is the percentage rate of growth. Not only did the Census Director focus nearly exclusively on percentage growth, he also made several statements would be inaccurate unless one assumes that they apply to percentage rate of growth. In particular, he stated, not just in the quote above from PBS Newshour but again on Washington Journal two days later, “The net effect is a slowing of growth.”  This claim is only accurate to the extent that one infers that he is describing percentage rates.

Thirdly, even in terms of percentage analysis, which is more consistent with the claims of slowing growth than the numerical analysis, the growth of this past decade is only slightly lower than that experienced in the 1970s, while it is virtually tied with that of the 1980s. In fact, only the surprising resurgence of percentage growth in the 1990s provides a context in which the percentage growth from 2000 to 2010 can be described as diminisihing. This is problematic, however, to the extent that one considers that long-term growth is what really matters in demography. (It’s my impression that few demogrpahers would attempt to argue otherwise.)  This analysis, on the other hand is entirely restricted to comparisons between individual decades.  Considered as a twenty-year rolling average, (Figure 2) percentage growth has been steadily increasing for the past three decades. And the numerical growth since 1990 is unprecedented in the history of the developed world.  By emphatically confirming Woodruff’s overly broad statement, “So we’ve grown as a country, but more slowly than in past decades,” Groves is reinforcing a seriously flawed interpretation of our long-term demographic trajectory.

Figure 2:  20-Year Rolling Average of Percentage and Numerical U.S. Population Growth–1910-2010

Figure2

A few days later, Groves was once again spared a potentially awkward moment when he appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal. As in the PBS segment, the introduction provides a summary of the overall Census 2010 results, with host Peter Slen reading a headline from the previous day.

“Here is USA Today’s headline from yesterday, ‘Three hundred eight point seven million people’ in this country, but the subhead is, ‘The Nation sees its slowest growth—9.7%– since the great depression.’”   And then, addressing Groves, “Why?”

To which Groves replies, “That’s right.”

I can’t divine from these interviews the extent to which Woodruff’s and Slen’s introductory framing  was influenced by Census Bureau materials or pre-briefings with the interview subject, but it’s clear that, A) their statements are entirely consistent with Groves’ focus on slowing growth when he spoke earlier at the National Press Club, and B) by summarizing the data in their introductions, they have spared Groves the ambiguous honor of having to personally offer a fairly narrow but arguably misleading summary of the Census results. Granted, it is common practice for a journalist to prepare an introduction to an interview with the help of the interviewee, but one would hope that such an introduction would not be used as an opportunity to get the person conducting the interview to make statements that the interview subject hesitates to state independently.

Whatever the intentions of the Census Bureau to create an impression of slowing growth as it released the the 2010 results, that is clearly the message that the American media heard and passed forward. The following list shows seven of the first ten results of a Yahoo keyword search for “Census” and “growth” a week after Director Groves appeared before the National Press Club. (The other three headlines, which included no reference to pace of growth, have been omitted for sake of brevity.)

Table One:  Seven out of first ten results for Yahoo search of keywords “Census” and “Growth,”  Dec. 28, 2010

Seven out of first ten top results for Yahoo Search

On Keywords “Census” and “Growth” (emphasis added)

December 28, 2010

 

 

USA Today:

Census reports slow growth in states

Christian Science Monitor:

2010 census results:  Why did US population growth slow?

Arizona Republic:

Census: Sun Belt growth slowing

AOL News:

2010 Census: US Growth Slowest Since Depression

Huffingtonpost:

2010 Census Likely To Show Slowing Population Growth

MSNBC:

Population growth slowest since 1940, census shows

Fox News:

Census shows slowing US growth, brings GOP gains

ABC News:

2010 Census to Show Slowing US Growth, GOP Gains

 

In both the NPC appearance on the morning of the 21st of December and the Washington Journal appearance on the 23rd, Groves elaborates on the comparisons of percentage growth across individual decades.  In doing so, he doubled down on the focus on percentage rate, making statements that would be patently false when not restricted to that metric. In both cases, he referred to the above graphic (Figure 1) portraying  percentage growth rates and total population size.

In the Washington Journal segment, Groves offers these comparisons:

We have two exceptional decades. The great depression—the decade of the great depression, had the lowest overall growth rate of about 7.3%.  And then the decade of the fifties, that saw the baby boom, has a huge growth rate. If you take those two points out we are gradually reducing the rate. It’s 9.7% over the last ten years.

This analysis is only valid, however, when restricted to percentage rate comparisons between individual decades, and is highly inconsistent with the pattern of numerical growth. This analysis closely echoes the one offered a few days earlier at the National Press Club:

There are two notable decades here. Between 1930 and 1940, the small growth rate of 7.3% is thought to be related to the great depression. Between 1950 and 1960, the high growth rate of 18.5% reflects the so-called baby boom.

In both of the above-cited statements, Groves is making statements that reference the percentage-focused analysis displayed by the accompanying graph, but it’s worth noting that in the release of the Census results in 2000, the Census Bureau had provided a graph that prominently featured not only percentage growth but also per-decade numerical growth. That graph (Figure 3) clearly displays a reversal of the pattern of slowing growth as seen from 1960 to 1990, with the 1990s, in particular, exhibiting a surprising resurgence in both numerical and percentage terms.

Figure 3:  Census Bureau Graph presenting results of 2000 Census

Figure3

Clearly, if the Census Bureau had wanted to accurately and honestly portray the 2010 data in the most comprehensive format, a graph that portrays both percentage and per-decade numerical growth would be the most valid. The Census Bureau, however, chose to leave out the numerical data (except in the far more subtle scale of overall population size), and at one point  Groves even directed listeners to the “red line in this graphic,”  to support a comparison among decades that would be laughably inaccurate when considered by the same metrics displayed in the 2000 graphic. Figure 4 shows the 2010 results using the same data elements included in the 2000 graph. Obviously, a graph produced in this fashion would have been entirely problematic for the Census Director as he completely ignored the 1990s while describing the 1930s and 1950s as “two notable decades,” (NPC) and “two exceptional decades” (C-SPAN).

Figure 4: Per-decade percentage and numerical U.S. population growth-1910-2010

Figure4

Did the Census Director really believe that the 32 million-person increase of the 1990s, the largest single-decade numerical increase in the history of the developed world, was not notable or exceptional?  If so, was this because he happened to be working with a graph that omitted any meaningful scale for per-decade numerical growth?  Or did the Census Bureau decide that their objective was to downplay the resurgence in numerical growth and in long-term percentage growth, first, then produce graphics that they believed would best reinforce this dubious premise?

Another thing that might have surprised interested observers was the Census Director’s frequent comparisons of the U.S. pattern of growth to the (accurately described) slowing growth of other advanced democracies.  I have already quoted examples of this, but they bear repeating here:

At the National Press Club:

Over the last 100 years, the rate of growth in the U.S. population has gradually slowed. This is true in many developed societies.

In the PBS interview with Judy Woodruff, after describing “ . . .. a long-run trend, of gradually slowing the growth in our population,” Groves added,

“This is very common in developed societies. Around the world, most of the developed world is slowing its rate of growth.”

And on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, Groves elaborated on the pattern of slowing growth mentioned in the USA Today headline by adding,

“Like a lot of developed countries, we are gradually reducing the rate of growth.”

He had also referred to “ . . .. the lower fertility of developed countries,” as a partial cause of the slowing of growth referred to in the USAToday headline.

In comparing our demographic pattern to other developed democracies, the Census Director is taking advantage of a global pattern that is at least marginally familiar to the informed public: the tendency for developed nations, in most cases, to have undergone a consistent long-term slowing in their growth over the course of the last half century.  The fact that the U.S. Censuses of 2000 and 2010 point to a reversal of that pattern, a fact widely acknowledged by other sophisticated purveyors of demographic data, does not intrude on the Census Director’s efforts to draw comparions with that pattern in all three of his public appearances that week. Such comparisons, however, contrasted sharply with the descriptions by other observers of a U.S. sharply deviating form that pattern. Indeed, the results of the 2000 Census, and later UN estimates, led The Economist (US) (2002) to run a story entitled “Half a billion Americans?” in 2002. This piece quoted Hania Zlotnik, a Princeton educated demographer who would head the UN’s population division a few years later, as saying, “America is the world’s great demographic outlier.”

Another area where the Census Bureau has seemingly downplayed the growth in the U.S. population is in answers about the impact of immigration on that growth.  In all three interviews by Groves in the week before Christmas of 2010, he was asked about the extent to which immigration contributes to our population growth, and in each case he answered with identical numbers but used slightly different phrasing. All three answers merit scrutiny here.

At the National Press Club:  Dec. 21, 2010, Groves responded to a call-in question from a journalist about the issue of slowing growth. The questioner concluded, “Is that because of the immigration issue, or is it because of fewer births?”

Well, growth in our country from comes from both natural increase, the fertility processes of the folks who live here. And part of the growth is due to that, and part of it is due to immigration.  Based on our demographic analysis, it looks like about 60% of our growth is due to these natural increases, and about 40% from in-migration. (Pause) Net.

Asked by Judy Woodruff  about immigration’s impact on growth, Groves responded similarly.

Immigration is a part of our picture, as in most developed societies. Over the last 10 years, a rough estimate would be about 60 percent of the growth we experienced was from the natural increase of the then-resident population, about 40 percent from immigration.

On Washington Journal, Peter Slen asked, “Out of the growth, how much of that is immigration?

We don’t know exactly. If we look outside to other data sources, our best guess would be in this decade maybe 60% of our growth came from the natural increase of the resident population, and about 40% was from in–migration. (Pause) Or the net migration.

Given the political volatility of the immigration issue, it’s unlikely that the Census Director had not anticipated this question. Furthermore, the consistency of these similarly phrased answers, and his last-minute specification of “net” migration in two of these examples, suggest a high level of preparedness. All three of these responses, however, are clearly phrased with language that shifts the focus so that he is answering a different question than the ones he was asked. In particular, the response at the National Press Club intricately reframes the question by segregating growth into the addition of people through migration, as one source of population growth, and the number of births, including births to immigrants, as a distinct source.

The question he has answered here, as his careful but easily overlooked clarifications delineate,  is not, “How much does immigration contribute to our population growth?” The question he is answering, which has very different implications, is how much of that growth results directly from the physical entry of people into our nation.  In specifying a distinction between “fertility processes of the folks who live here,” and “net migration,” he is subltly distinguishing between the physical arrival of people within our borders, which has a primary impact on our population size, and the birth of children to immigrants after they arrive, a secondary but nonetheless highly significant demographic contribution to our overall population growth. The degree of that significance is readily quantified in a study produced barely two years earlier by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center. Calculating not just on the basis of people entering our country, but also the long-term population effect of the children those immigrants have after their arrival, the report concluded:

If current trends  continue, the population of the United States will rise to 438 million in 2050,  from 296 million in 2005, and 82% of the increase will be  due to  immigrants arriving  from  2005 to 2050 and their U.S.-born descendants. (Passel, Cohn)

So while the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center views births to immigrants as a substantial contribution to U.S. population growth—and echoes the portrayal of rapid growth by other analysts cited above–why does the Census Director, in multiple settings using virtually identical statistics, subtly qualify his statement to exclude the population impact of immigrant fertility, and the descendents of immigrants, from the growth effects he attributes to (net) migration.  As in his emphasis on percentage-only analysis, as in his comparisons between the U.S. and other democracies exhibiting a genuine slowing of growth, his carefully structured answers support an impression of a smaller effect, this time a smaller effect of immigration on overall growth. By lumping the fertility of immigrants in with the fertility of native born Americans, and by specifying net migration, which reduces the statistic in question by offsetting in-migration with out-migration, he is offering a statistical nugget that provides the lowest possible interpretation of the impact of immigration on U.S. population growth.

I have thus far provided examples in which the Census Bureau, including its Director, consistently provided analysis and graphics that best support an impression of slowing U.S. growth in sharp contrast to the analysis of other leading observers. In looking at the Census Director’s handling of questions about the impact of immigration on our population growth, we  can now infer some plausible rationale for that persistent but disingenous focus on our “ . . .. slowing of growth.”

Since before his election, President Obama has called for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR), including some form of legal provision, described by many as amnesty, that would allow people who are present in this country illegally to remain here. Many advocates would like these provisions to include a path to citizenship for the migrants in question. Some proposed changes call not only for some form of amnesty for the estimated eleven plus million undocumented in this country but also for an increase in legal immigration. Clearly, the political climate for these and other measures could rise or fall in inverse proportion to the widespread perception that America is undergoing an unprecedented resurgence in demographic growth. In the same way, the carefully phrased parsing of the questions about immigration are consistent with a political desire to maintain support for liberalization of immigration policies.

It’s worth noting that some controversy arose when, early in the Obama era, the White House proposed changes in command structure to the effect that the Census Bureau would report  directly to the White House rather than to the Commerce Department. Some were concerned that the shift raised conflicts of interest with the potential for improperly gathered data to influence the decennial redistricting of congressional districts, and the Obama administration quickly abandoned the proposed changes. This question of inappropriate political influence on the Census Bureau, however, also rings true with my hypothesis about how the data was presented to the American people. I don’t suggest in any way that the numbers have been tampered with, but I do take issue with the analytical focus, the verbal characterizations and graphics used to convey the results.

Speaking on Washington Journal, the host asked a question about the political overlay of the results, and Groves answered:

One of the things I’m very proud of about the Census Bureau is that we are a nonpartisan agency.  We, like (C-SPAN), are devoted to getting information out to the public and letting them decide what it means. So they’ll be tons of political scientists who will comment on the politics. I’m not one of them.”

Answering a similar question from Judy Woodruff a few days earlier, Groves answered in more depth.

The Census Bureau is a nonpartisan statistical agency. This is something I feel to my bones. This is the most important attribute of the Census Bureau, because, if you think about it for a minute, the only purchase we have on doing good for society is if people believe our numbers. As soon as the public doesn’t find these numbers credible, we’re basically out of business. So, we do a lot of work to keep confidential the data provided for people and to keep political interference outside of everything.

In considering this claim to neutrality, I emphasize that nothing in my own analysis is meant to question the legitimacy of the raw data gathered by the 2010 Census.  My concerns go not to the numbers but to the words used to provide an accessible interpretation of that data, words that the Census Director used but which sharply contradict the words of other credible observers. Clearly, these are words that are meant to turn our attention away from layers of the onion that might produce a different impression, an impression of accelerating growth.

I hasten to point out that I believe Robert Groves is under some pressure here and did not present the results of the Census as he would have liked. Everything about the man, his background, his mannerisms, his clarity of speaking, convince me that he regrets the political considerations that prevent him from peeling back these outer layers of our demogrpahic portrait. He would like to elaborate, I think, on the way that the high-fertility growth of the 1950s differs from the the high-immigration growth we’ve seen since 1990. He would like to point out that the duration of the baby boom was limited to two decades but that the current resurgence in U.S. population growth is ongoing in spite of a modest dip coinciding with the current recession. And he would like to tell Americans how this growth will affect them and their children, how it will bring new opportunities but also immense challenges.

I believe that Robert Groves sees this as a solemn duty and a great honor, but he also apparently wants to keep his job.  I think he is following orders given him by someone higher up, orders that trouble him but which he doesn’t feel he can resist. If my hypothesis is correct, then Robert Groves is not the person to blame.

After the controversy provoked when Republicans objected to the Obama administration’s effort to put White House officials in direct control of Census Bureua operations, Representative Carol Maloney (D-NY) introduced legislation to move in the opposite direction. Her proposal would have given the Census Bureau independent status, free from pressures exerted by whichever party happened to control the White House.  In supporting this change, Maloney argued:

After three decades of controversy surrounding the decennial census, the time has come to recognize the Census Bureau as one of our country’s premier scientific agencies and it should be accorded the status of peers such as NASA, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation. This action will be a clear signal to Americans that the agency they depend upon for unbiased monthly economic data as well as the important decennial portrait of our nation is independent, fair, and protected from interference.

The Director of the Census Bureau has a solemn duty to the American people, and he needs to be free to perform that solemn duty outside the sphere of politics. If the Census Director is unable to escape political pressures that would have him mislead the public in the pursuit of a political agenda, then the people will be deliberating and making choices about their future on the basis of flawed perceptions.

Having a clear and accurate picture of population trends is critical to making good choices, and the Census Bureau’s characterization of demographic data influences decisions made by urban planners, by school boards, by investors hoping to identify successful business models for competing in a changing environment. Let’s face it, the American people are not immune to a well-constructed sound bite, no matter how disingenous it might be. For example, how do we persuade voters to support a tax increase to expand water treatment facilities when the nation’s demographer in chief is offering them a soothing description of a historically significant pattern of slowing growth, even as, in reality, we are experiencing the largest demographic expanison in the history of the developed world?

References:

Economist (US), (Aug. 24, 2002) “Half a billion Americans? – Demography and the West; How demographic trends are pulling Europe and America apart.”

Groves, R. (Dec. 21, 2010: NPC) “2010 Census Results” C-SPAN Video Library. Press conference at the National Press Club.

Available here: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/First20

Hoff, D. (July 25, 2011) “A modest proposal for a new population debate,” Need to Know on PBS.

Available here: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/need-to-know/opinion/a-modest-proposal-for-population-control/10420/

Kotkin, J. (2010) The Next 100 Million: America in 2050, Penguin Press, p.1

Kotkin, J. (April 26, 2010) “400 Million People Can’t Be Wrong,” Newsweek, 155.17.  p46

Passel,D.S.  & Cohn, D. (Feb. 11, 2008) US Population Projections:2005-2050. Pew Hispanic Center, p.1

PBS Newshour, (Dec. 21, 2010) “CENSUS: U.S. West’s Population Overtakes Midwest’s.”

Avaliable here: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/politics/july-dec10/census1_12-21.html

US Census Bureau (1989) “Total Population—Annual projections and components of Change, for the United States: 1988 to 2080, Part B. Series 14—Middle Series.

Wattenberg, B. (May 24, 2012) “America’s 21st-Century Population Edge,” Wall Street Journal, pg A15.

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This entry was posted on February 5, 2013 by in Uncategorized.

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Progressive Populationist

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