Thursday, May 7, 2015

Modern Census Bureau Flub

I was so excited when I finally received an American Community Survey (ACS) in the mail from the U.S. Census Bureau.  I was, after all, one of the vast majority who received only the (very) short form during the 2010 census, which asked for minimal information.  Being a genealogist, I was disappointed that I would not be leaving a detailed census form such as the ones I rely on for so much of my research.  Here was my opportunity to have more detailed information about myself be recorded for posterity.

My excitement over the ACS quickly turned to frustration.  At the very beginning of the survey, I had to settle for giving the Census Bureau inaccurate information.  Considering how many historical censuses have wrong information (albeit a lot of it likely due to simple communication problems between census takers and residents, as opposed to deliberate obfuscation), that really annoyed me.

The Bureau has apparently chosen to save some money by allowing each ZIP code to map to only one city, so I had to submit that I lived in Emeryville, California.  I actually live in Oakland.  My ZIP code, 94608, covers part of Oakland and also the city of Emeryville.  While I concede that limiting the number of cities a ZIP code can match will save some money and make programming easier, in the long run it gives inaccurate information by (statistically) taking people out of one city's population and adding them to another's.  (And let's not even talk about Palos Verdes Estates, Rolling Hills, and Rolling Hills Estates, all being lumped under "Palos Verdes Peninsula", which isn't even an incorporated entity.)

How much of a difference does that make, you ask?  Well, according to the cover letter I received with my instructions for the ACS, "[t]his survey collects up-to-date information used to meet the needs of communities across the United States.  For example, results from this survey are used to decide where new schools, hospitals, and fire stations are needed.  This information also helps communities plan for . . . emergency situations . . . such as floods and other natural disasters."

In the 2010 census, Emeryville was enumerated as having about 10,000 residents.  Oakland, on the other hand, has a little more than 400,000 (and we're still smaller than Fresno, something which pains me deeply :( ).  If I estimate that as low as 2.5% of Oaklanders live in the 94608 ZIP code area, that equals 10,000 people.  Counting them as Emeryville inhabitants effectively doubles the population of the small city, and removes that number of people from the Oakland population total.  Do you think that could skew emergency planning?

Thinking of future genealogists, assuming the ACS information ever becomes public, researchers would probably assume that I lived in Emeryville because, after all, that's what the government information would say.  Those researchers would quickly become as frustrated as I am now when they didn't find any information about me in Emeryville and in fact couldn't even find my street address there.

There's enough inaccurate information out there already.  Does the government have to deliberately create more by unwarranted shortcuts?

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