A Former Census Taker Says Undercounting Is Inevitable

Published on January 18th, 2011

The news that California officials estimate a 1.5 million undercount in the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010 state population came as no surprise to me, a one-time census taker. In the late 1980s, I moved from Seattle to the San Joaquin Valley. While my application to teach at the Lodi Unified School District had been approved, the fall semester was still several weeks away. Needing a job to tide me over, I answered an ad for 1990 census takers and was promptly hired, trained and released into the field. I figured that since the pay was about twice the minimum wage, the work was outside and I could (unofficially) bring my dogs along in my truck, I was all set until my real job started. Immediately I notice two things, both of which lead to census undercounts. First, when I was working within the inner city, many immigrant households obviously had more than single-family residents. When the opened just a crack, I could see inside several infants, adults who may have been parents, brothers, sisters, aunts or uncles with evidence like cribs and toys that indicated they were permanently at that address. If I could overcome the language barrier, a challenge since most of the families were Southeast Asians, the replies to questions about how many lived at the address were always small numbers. Of course, among the immigrant community, there was deep suspicion of government officials. Suspicion grew more profound once I got into the rural areas. When a government representative gets into the hills to announce that he “is coming to ask you some questions,” he’s not welcome. After a few such visits, I considered myself lucky not to be threatened. As per our instructions, we would take our best guess by looking at the numbers of cars or any other evidence that might have indicated how many people lived at the address. Those estimates were always low. According to the latest Census, California has 37.3 million residents; the Department of Finance, however, puts the state’s population at 38.8 million. While increasingly large populations lead to sprawl and a diminished quality of life, they do help increase the federal funding distributed to each state from the government’s $400 billion pool. Since California has a $25 billion budget deficit, every federal dollar counts and the angst about a possible under count demonstrated by those who have to manage the state is understandable But a greater worry to environmentalists and advocates of stable population is California’s aggregate growth since 1990. According to the Census, California’s 1990 population was 29.8 million, 8.5 million fewer than the 2010 count. That increase over two decades represents a totally unsustainable 25 percent population growth.

You are donating to :

How much would you like to donate?
$10 $20 $30
Would you like to make regular donations? I would like to make donation(s)
How many times would you like this to recur? (including this payment) *
Name *
Last Name *
Email *
Additional Note