Controversy in using sampling for the dicennial Census

In a story about the resignation of sociologist Robert Groves as director of the United States Census Bureau, there is an overview of some of the controversy over Groves’ nomination. The issue: the political implications of using statistical sampling.

Dr. Robert M. Groves announced on Tuesday that he was resigning his position as director of the U.S. Census Bureau in order to take over as provost of Georgetown University. “I’m an academic at heart,” Groves told The Washington Post. He will leave the Bureau in August. Unlike some government officials who recently have had to resign under a cloud, such as Regina Dugan of DARPA and Martha Johnson of the General Services Administration, Groves received universal praise for the job he did directing the 2010 Census, a herculean task he completed on time and almost $2 billion under budget.
At the time of Groves’ nomination, Rep. Darrell Issa, (R-California), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said that he found it “an incredibly troubling selection that contradicts the administration’s assurances that the census process would not be used to advance an ulterior political agenda.” However, by the time Groves announced that he was leaving, Issa had changed his tune and issued a statement that “His tenure is proof that appointing good people makes a big difference.”
When President Barack Obama nominated Groves on April 2, 2009, he was viewed as a generally uncontroversial professor of sociology.  However, his nomination turned out to be contentious anyway because his support for using statistical sampling, a statistical method commonly used to correct for errors and biases in the census, raised the ire of Republican critics, who believed that sampling would benefit minorities and the poor, who generally vote Democratic…
A specialist in survey methodology and statistics, Groves was no stranger to the Census Bureau, whose decennial census is one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated statistical exercises.  Groves served there early in his career as a visiting statistician in 1982, and later as associate director of Statistical Design, Standards, and Methodology from 1990 to 1992.  It was during the latter period that Groves became embroiled in the controversy over the proposed use of statistical sampling to correct known biases and deficiencies in the Census head count.  Groves and others at the Census Bureau proposed using sampling techniques to correct an admitted 1.2% undercount in the 1990 Census, which failed to include millions of homeless, minority and poor persons mainly living in big cities, which lost millions of dollars in federal funds when Republican Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher vetoed the sampling proposal.

Considering Groves’ track record in sociology, I’m not surprised that he is now regarded to have done a good job in this position.

Perhaps this is a silly question in today’s world but does everything have to become politicized? Is the ultimate goal to get the most accurate count of American residents or do both parties simply assume that the other side wants to use the occasion for political gain? If you want to limit funding to cities based on population, why not go after this funding rather than try to skew the count?

Of course, this is not the first time that the dicennial Census has been politicized…

Another note: a sociologist apparently saved the government $2 billion! That alone should draw some attention.

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