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Statisticians Get Technical

by Data Planet ™ on 2019-05-03T11:00:00-04:00 in About Data, Population and Income | Comments

The US Supreme Court heard arguments in April on case No. 18-966, the Department of Commerce, et al. [Petitioners] v. New York, et al. [Respondents], an appeal of a federal district judge’s ruling that invalidated US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross’ 2018 decision to add a citizenship question to the short form of the 2020 Census. In “On Census Citizenship Question, Supreme Court’s Conservatives Appear United,” published April 23, 2019, in The New York Times, Adam Liptak reported that “much of the argument, which lasted 80 minutes rather than the usual hour, concerned statistical modeling. ‘This gets really, really technical,’ Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said in a frustrated voice.” 

The concern of statisticians was expressed in a brief filed as amici curiae by the American Statistical Association, American Sociological Association, Population Association of America, and American Library Association in support of the Respondents: “…an uncertain and untested change to that [the 2020] census will imperil the accuracy, reliability, and utility of a core tool for their [amici] research and decisionmaking. And because amici so heavily rely on and use census data, they are further concerned that the addition of the citizenship question will cause lasting damage to the credibility and professional standing of the Bureau, one of the world’s leading statistical agencies.”

The count of the citizenry is used to determine the number of congressional seats allocated to states – as well as the number of votes in the Electoral College - and is also used as the basis of allocating federal monies, which lends critical significance to the accuracy of the results. As example, this chart shows states who gained seats with the reapportionment that occurred after the 2010 Census:


and those states that lost seats:


In evaluating the accuracy of statistical data, a critical data user needs to look at the facts, and, at Data Planet, that means going to the source, in this case, the US Census Bureau. The major function of the US Census Bureau, a bureau of the US Department of Commerce, was authorized by Article 2, Section 2 of the United States Constitution, which provides that a census of population shall be taken every 10 years. The first decennial census was conducted in 1790 and has been conducted every 10 years subsequently, with the next census scheduled to take place during 2020.

You’ll find many facts relevant to the current Supreme Court appeal on the Census website. As examples:

  • Review the long history of the citizenship question at Census in this timeline
  • Learn when and why the question was moved to the American Community Survey data collection program here
  • Find out more about how the Census has been testing the design and implementation of the 2020 Census at “2020 Census Research, Operational Plans, and Oversight."
  • Data users are also encouraged to review the technical documentation made available with each release. You’ll find a good starting point for the 2010 census here.  
  • Response to the Census is required by law, and, as importantly, responses are protected by federal law.  For details on these protections, visit "The 2020 Census and Confidentiality."  

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