Need to conduct a census? Invent house numbers

In Democracy’s Data, historian Dan Bouk explains how the process of counting people led to the development of house numbers:

Photo by Vitaly Kushnir on

Numerical addresses owed their very existence to censuses. House numbers are essentially names state offices assigned to lodgings. According to one historian, the idea of marking houses with consecutive numbers dates to the desire of Enlightenment monarchs – like the Austrian Maria Theresa – to make a better count of men who could be conscripted into the military. Houses were also sometimes numbered to count minority groups, like the Jews of Prague in one of the earliest cases in 1727, or to make it easier for rulers to find places where soldiers could be billeted. (This practice of quartering soldiers in private homes was common enough, and widely enough disliked, to be proscribed during peacetime in the U.S. Bill of Rights, in the Third Amendment.) Odd-numbered houses on one side of the street, even-numbered houses on the other, had to be invented too. Philadelphia, the nation’s temporary capital at the time, alternated odds and evens in order to make it easier to conduct the federal census in 1790. New York City copied its neighbor in 1793, as did Paris in 1805. Though people quickly came to rely on numerical addresses to find one another, send letters, or navigate strange and growing cities, those uses were accidental benefits of an apparatus meant to serve the data makers in imperial or national bureaucracies. (58)

It is hard to imagine a world without numbered street addresses today. Perhaps it is just the scale of communities; how would you differentiate between the thousands of addresses within a small geographic area? Street addresses are not the only way properties are identified. Communities have categorization systems for parcels. The way current addresses are set up requires a zooming in approach: you start with the community or zip code, find the street, and then identify the number. Of course, there could be a system that does not use or need numbers, but it is hard to imagine such a system in the quantified world we inhabit.

More broadly, numbers are helpful with addressing particular social issues. Conducting a census helps with social matters like taxation, resource allotment, and more. Having numbers for addresses helps enable counting but also aids mail delivery and others seeking to find particular addresses.

How Census questions muddle race and ethnicity for Latinos

Sociologist Richard Alba explains how the Census does not accurately capture racial and ethnic change:

Sticking with the two-question format means that the great majority of young people with mixed Hispanic and white origins will be categorized only as Hispanic — and therefore as “nonwhite,” in census terminology. This classification will often contradict how they perceive and experience their identity, and how they’re treated by the world around them.

And it is sociological nonsense. A growing body of data reveals that individuals from mixed families look more like whites than they do like minorities — except for those who are partly black. The exception demonstrates, it should be emphasized, the persistent and severe racism that confronts Americans with visible African heritage.


And these measurements then affect projections for the future as well as political reactions:

And classifying those from mixed Hispanic and white families as “nonwhites” results in Census Bureau population projections of a majority-minority society by the mid-2040s. But such projections are grossly misleading because of the binary thinking that undergirds them and the misclassification of individuals who are partly white and partly minority…

In the 2016 presidential election, according to research Michael Tesler has reported here at The Monkey Cage, President Trump appears to have gained many votes from whites because of their anxiety about a rapidly changing society that would soon leave them as part of a minority.

At the least, we should keep in mind that racial and ethnic definitions can and do change over time due to a variety of factors: understandings within particular groups (self-understanding), understandings from other groups in society (pressures from the outside, particularly dominant groups), and how race and ethnicity are measured.

This could also raise questions about forecasts for the future of society – especially decades out. On one hand, we want to be able to prepare for changes and trends. On the other hand, demographic trends and shifts in behaviors and attitudes are not set in stone. Both researchers and leaders need to be flexible – or in terms of one of the current buzzwords, resilient  – enough to adapt.

Estimate that 8.3% of Americans changed racial or ethnic identity between the 2000 and 2010 Census

A new study provides a reminder of the fluidity of racial and ethnic identities as a number of Americans reported different identities on the 2000 and 2010 Census:

The report showed that 1 in 16 people — or approximately 9.8 million of 162 million — who responded to both the 2000 and 2010 censuses gave different answers when it came to race and ethnicity.If extrapolated across the entire population, that would mean that 8.3 percent of people in the United States would have made a change in their racial or ethnic identity in that decade, according to the paper authored by Sonya Rastogi, Leticia E. Fernandez, James M. Noon and Sharon R. Ennis of the U.S. Census Bureau and Carolyn A. Liebler of the University of Minnesota.

The largest change was from Hispanic (some other race) to Hispanic white, with 2.38 million people making that change on their census forms. But the next greatest change was from Hispanic white to Hispanic (some other race), with 1.2 million people deciding that designation fit them better. Put together, these two changes make up more than a third (37 percent) of the race/ethnicity changes in the report…

The groups most likely to change were people who were children and/or living in the West in 2000. That region also had a higher rate of interracial marriage, and multiple race reporting, the report said. The census defines the West as being Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

The most stable groups were single-race, non-Hispanic whites, blacks and Asians, with those who checked those boxes staying with them in both censuses. People were also consistent with their Hispanic/non-Hispanic choices.

Those who make strong predictions about the demography of the United States in the coming decades have to contend with changes like this. It isn’t as easy as suggesting that the proportion of whites will continue to decline. What if more Hispanics see themselves as white? White as a category changed quite a bit in the past to include new immigrant groups and will likely continue to change in the future. All of this introduces uncertainty in thinking about how this could play out with contemporary debates, like with immigration.

It would also be interesting to compare the responses provided to the Census versus an everyday understanding of one’s racial and/or ethnic identity. The Census categories have their own history and may not always match lived realities.

The United States added nearly 17 million people from 2007 to 2014

In the middle of a story regarding the rising price of electricity, I found this surprising fact:

According to the Census Bureau, however, the resident population of the United States increased from 300,888,674 in April 2007 to 317,787,997 in April 2014.

Several quick thoughts:

1. I had a conversation earlier in the day with several colleagues about population stagnation in a number of industrialized countries around the world. The United States is unusual compared to Western Europe which has lower birth rates and lower rates of immigration.

2. It is hard to imagine 17 million people. In other terms, the United States added more than the metropolitan population of London.

3. I’ve had the thought lately that perhaps part of the political morass in the United States these days is due to a political system that is simply difficult to maintain with 317 million residents. Providing for all of these people adds to the difficulties of maintaining bureaucracies (and you need quite a few with the population). A two party system makes it very difficult to represent all of the competing concerns and interests. Reaching consensus can be difficult within a country that prizes individualism.

The historical emergence of the category Hispanic in the United States

A sociologist with a new book titled Making Hispanics discusses how the category came about:

How did this movement start?

It was the activists who first went to the Census Bureau and said, ‘You have got to create a category. You have got to distinguish us from whites.’ Up until that time, the Census Bureau mainly grouped Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans in the same category as Irish and Italian, and that became a real problem because it couldn’t show the government the poverty rates between Mexicans and whites. There was pushback on how large and how broad the category could be, but ultimately, a Hispanic category was established.

How was the category sold to Latin Americans?

The Census Bureau asked activists and the Spanish-language media to promote the category. The media created documentaries and commercials. There was even a Telethon where people called in, and were encouraged to identify as Hispanic on the Census form. We can see why the media executives were so happy and so quick to help the Census Bureau because, later on, it became in their interests to help grow that cooperation.

Why was that?

Until that time, Spanish-language media executives had been creating separate television stations and programming for Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans. Suddenly they were able to start using some of this broad Census data and go to advertisers like McDonald’s and Coca Cola and say, ‘Look, we’re a national Hispanic community and our consumer needs are different so invest in us and we will get you Hispanic consumer dollars.’ With that strategy, they were able to connect stations across the country, and over time, create a Spanish-language McDonald’s commercial that could broadcast to a national audience…

Weren’t there enough Mexican Americans to warrant their own category?

In the 1970s, this was fine if you wanted to capture the California governor’s attention, but it wasn’t enough for capturing President Nixon or President Ford’s attention, and it certainly wasn’t enough for capturing the attention of East Coast politicians because many of them had never even met a Mexican. But when activists were able to cite the number of Cubans in Florida, Puerto Ricans in New York, Salvadorans in DC and Mexicans in the Southwest, and when they were able to argue that these groups were all connected and were all in need of resources for job training programs and bilingual education, then they were onto something. It was only then that activists could get federal attention – by making Latin American groups seem like part of a national constituency.

Interesting blend of an emerging presence in the United States, developing Census definitions, and new marketing and media opportunities. This is another reminder of the fluidity of racial and ethnic categories in the United States and the various influences shaping those categories.

Comparing maps of urban poverty from 1980 and 2010

These new maps of urban poverty show how poverty has changed in the last thirty years:

Poverty in the United States doesn’t look like it did just a few decades ago. In many metro areas, it touches more people today than in 1980. The demographics have changed too, with new and expanding communities of the Hispanic poor in cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas. And the geography has shifted – as we’ve previously written, following the work of Brookings Institution researchers Alan Berube and Elizabeth Kneebone, poverty now stretches well into the suburbs…

In some cities, like Milwaukee, it remains racially segregated, with the black poor living in one part of town, the white poor in another, and the Hispanic and Asian poor in separate pockets. In other cities, like Houston, racially diverse families living under the poverty line appear to share some of the same neighborhoods…

All of these pictures underscore why policy solutions created to address poverty years ago may not be well suited to the task today.

Research on urban poverty in the 1980s was largely focused on poor, black neighborhoods. This was the era of work by sociologists like William Julius Wilson, Paul Jargowsky, Doug Massey and Nancy Denton, and others who turned their attention to hyperconcentrated poverty which was largely ignored by the public and policymakers. As these maps illustrate, poverty today is much more complex involving different groups in new locations. In other words, our public understanding of urban poverty needs updating and needs to be able to tackle more variability.

Population loss in rural America since 2010

Countering a recent argument that rural areas are experiencing a “brain gain,” new Census data shows nonmetro counties experienced a net population loss between 2010 and 2012:

The number of people living in nonmetropolitan (nonmetro) counties now stands at 46.2 million–15 percent of U.S. residents spread across 72 percent of the land area of the U.S. Population growth rates in nonmetro areas have been lower than those in metro areas since the mid-1990s, and the gap widened considerably in recent years. While nonmetro areas in some parts of the country have experienced population loss for decades, nonmetro counties as a whole gained population every year for which county population estimates are available–until recently. Between April 2010 and July 2012, nonmetro counties declined in total population by 44,000 people, a -0.09-percent drop according to the most recent release of annual county population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. County population change includes two major components: natural change (births minus deaths, also available separately) and net migration (inmigrants minus outmigrants). Nonmetro population loss during 2010-12 reflects natural increase of 135,000 offset by net outmigration of -179,000.

New population estimates are subject to revision, the rate of nonmetro population decline since 2010 is quite small, and the trend may be short-lived depending on the course of the economic recovery. Nonetheless, the 2010-12 period marks the first years with estimated population loss for nonmetro America as a whole. Even if temporary, this historic shift highlights a growing demographic challenge facing many regions across rural and small-town America, as population growth from natural change is no longer large enough to counter cyclical net migration losses.

And here is an interesting chart looking at population growth in cities, suburbs, and rural areas:

This would seem to contradict the idea of a rural “brain gain.” Perhaps it is a more complicated story:

1. More educated people could be choosing to move to rural areas but less educated people are leaving rural areas in search of opportunities elsewhere.

2. A “brain gain” is happening in certain places but not across rural areas as a whole.

But, the takeaway is still important: this may be when American rural areas really run into problems as the natural population growth is not enough to keep up with out-migration.

Is this meaningful data: Chicago the “slowest-growing major city” between 2011 and 2012?

New figures from the Census show that Chicago doesn’t fare well compared to other cities in recent population growth:

Chicago gained nearly 10,000 people from July 2011 to July 2012, but was the slowest-growing major city in the country according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released Thursday.

It was the second year in a row that population grew here, but the increase so far shows no signs of making up for the loss of 200,000 people over the previous decade…

Among cities with more than one million people, sun-belt metropolises like Dallas, San Antonio, Phoenix, Houston and San Diego all posted gains of more than 1.3 percent, while Chicago grew by little more than one-third of 1 percent.

With a total estimated population of 2,714,856. Chicago held on to its spot as the third largest city. But the two largest cities padded their leads, with New York City adding 67,000 in 2012 and No. 2 Los Angeles gaining 34,000 people.

While I’m sure some will use these figures to judge Chicago’s politics and development efforts, I’m not sure these figures mean anything. Here’s why:

1. The data only cover one year. This is just one time point. The story does a little bit to provide a wider context by referencing the 2010-2010 population figures but it would also be helpful to know the year-to-year figures for the last two years. In other words, what is the trend in the last several years in Chicago? Is the nearly 10,000 new people much different from 2011 or 1010 or 1009?

2. These are population estimates meaning there is a margin of error for the estimate. Thus, that error might cover a decent amount of population growth in all of these cities.

In the end, we need more data over time to know whether there are long-term trends going on in these major cities.

Two other interesting notes from the Census data:

1. The population growth in the Sunbelt continues:

Eight of the 15 fastest-growing large U.S. cities and towns for the year ending July 1, 2012 were in Texas, according to population estimates released today by the U.S. Census Bureau. The Lone Star State also stood out in terms of the size of population growth, with five of the 10 cities and towns that added the most people over the year…

No state other than Texas had more than one city on the list of the 15 fastest-growing large cities and towns. However, all but one were in the South or West.

This fits with what Joel Kotkin has been saying for a while.

2. Many Americans continue to live in communities with fewer than 50,000 people:

Of the 19,516 incorporated places in the United States, only 3.7 percent (726) had populations of 50,000 or more in 2012.

However, many of these smaller communities are suburbs near big cities. It’s too bad there aren’t figures here about what percentage of Americans live in those 726 communities of 50,000 or more.

Continuing political battles over Census data

Megan McArdle provides a reminder of the political nature of the Census:

If the Census is the key to political control, then you can expect parties to put more energy into gaming the census.  Arguably, you’re already seeing this: Republicans are now making their second attempt to defund the American Community Survey, which uses sampling to generate data between censuses.  The American Community Survey is not used for districting, but it is used for all manner of other policy purposes.

As the political fault lines harden in Congress, the battlegrounds are moving back to more hidden levers of policymaking.  There are the courts, of course: we’re now in the third decade of a mostly undeclared war to gain control of the Supreme Court and do some unelected legislating.  Data gathering and research funding are coming under fierce scrutiny.  And on the national security front, secrecy and executive orders seem to be the order of the day for whoever is in the White House.

Before you say it, no, this isn’t just Republicans.  But it’s not good on either side.  As the legislature has ceased being able to legislate, both parties almost have to resort to more undemocratic methods to achieve their goals.  The casualties, like judicial impartiality and good data for policymaking, are vastly more important than the causes for which this war is allegedly being fought.

To see more details of the recent Republican defunding attempt, see here.

Data is rarely impartial: the processes of by which it is collected, interpreted, and then used in policy can be quite political. That doesn’t mean that is has to be. Much of the grounding for social science is the idea that data can be more objectively collected and analyzed. Yet, within the realms of politics where data is often a means to victory, having a good handle on data can go a long way, as we saw in the 2012 presidential election or currently in debates among Republicans about how to handle voter data.

In the end, it will be fascinating to see how big data, from the Census to Facebook, does or does not become political. There are a couple of fault lines in this debate. First, there are people who will argue that having such data is in itself political and dangerous while the opposite side will argue that having such data is necessary to have more efficient and business government and business. This could be a debate between libertarians and others: should there even be big data in the first place? Second, there is a good number of people who like the idea of collecting and using big data but debate who should be able to benefit from the data. Can the data be used for political ends? If government should have its hands on big data, perhaps it is okay for businesses? Should individual consumers have more power or control over their contributions and participation in big data?

h/t Instapundit

Census data visualization: metropolitan population change by natural increase, international migration, and domestic migration

The Census regularly puts together new data visualizations to highlight newly collected data. The most recent visualization looks at population change in metropolitan areas between 2010-2011 and breaks down the change by natural increase, international migration, and domestic migration.

Several trends are quickly apparent:

1. Sunbelt growth continues at a higher pace and non-Sunbelt cities tend to lose residents by domestic migration.

2. Population increases by international migration still tends to be larger in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami.

3. There are some differences in natural increases to population. I assume this is basically a measure of birth rates.

However, I have two issues with this visualization. My biggest complaint is that the boxes are not weighted by population. New York has the largest natural increase to the population but it is also the largest metropolitan areas by quite a bit. A second issue is that the box sizes are not all the 50,000 or 10,000 population change as suggested by the key at the top. So while I can see relative population change, it is hard to know the exact figures.