The Hard Count

The Hard Count: The Political and Social Challenges of Census Mobilization

D. Sunshine Hillygus
Norman H. Nie
Kenneth Prewitt
Heili Pals
Copyright Date: April 2006
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 168
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  • Book Info
    The Hard Count
    Book Description:

    American democracy relies on an accurate census to fairly allocate political representation and billions of dollars in federal funds. Declining participation in previous censuses and a general waning of civic engagement in society raised the possibility that the 2000 count would miss many Americans—disproportionately ethnic and racial minorities—depriving them of their share of influence in American society and yielding an unfair distribution of federal resources. Faced with this possibility, the Census Bureau launched a massive mobilization campaign to encourage Americans to complete and return their census forms. In The Hard Count, former Census Bureau director Kenneth Prewitt, D. Sunshine Hillygus, Norman H. Nie, and Heili Pals present a rigorous evaluation of this campaign. Can a busy, mobile, disengaged public be motivatived to participate in this civic activity? Using a rich set of data and drawing on theories of civic mobilization, political persuasion, and media effects, the authors assess the factors that influenced participation in the 2000 census. The Hard Count profiles a watershed moment in the history of the American census. As the mobilization campaign was underway, political opposition to the census sprang up, citing privacy issues and seeking to limit the kind of data the census could collect. Hillygus, Nie, Prewitt, and Pals analyze the competing effects of the mobilization campaign and the privacy controversy on public attitudes and cooperation with the census. Using an internet based survey, the authors tracked a representative sample of Americans over time to gauge changes in census attitudes, privacy concerns, and their eventual decision whether or not to return their census form. The study uniquely captures the public’s exposure to census advertising, community mobilization, and news stories, and was designed so people could view video clips and photos of actual campaign advertisements on their sets in their homes. The authors find that the Census Bureau campaign did in fact raise awareness of the census and census participation. The mobilization campaign was especially effective at increasing participation among groups historically undercounted by the census. They also find that census participation would have been higher if not for the privacy controversy, which discouraged many people from cooperating with the census and led others to omit information from their census form. The findings of The Hard Count have important policy implications for future census counts and offer theoretical insights regarding the influence of mobilization campaigns on civic participation. The goal of full and equal cooperation with the decennial census and other government surveys is an important national priority. The Hard Count shows that a mobilization campaign can dramatically increase voluntary participation in the decennial headcount and identifies emerging social and political challenges that may threaten future census counts and contribute to the growing fragility of our national statistical system.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-288-6
    Subjects: Population Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. About the Authors
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    The decennial census sounds so simple. Just count everyone across the nation and add up the numbers. Yet this seemingly mundane task is anything but simple and more than a little controversial. The census controversies in 2000, for instance, focused on issues of representation for minorities, privacy and confidentiality, and partisan politics. The political stakes of census participation are high. The decennial population count determines the number of seats a state gets in Congress and forms the basis for redrawing congressional districts and other political boundaries within a state. The census figures are used to distribute billions of dollars each...

  6. Chapter One The Social Context and the Political Climate
    (pp. 17-40)

    On december 28, 2000, the Census Bureau announced that on Census Day (April 1, 2000) the population of the United States had been precisely 281,421,906.¹ Although this number resulted from an impressive logistic operation and was the product of a complex counting process, it was just an estimate. The Census Bureau knew, as did any knowledgeable observer, that the “true count” was 281 million individuals—give or take a few million. No population census, in the United States or elsewhere, from biblical times to the modern era, is exact. No census operation can find and persuade everyone to cooperate or...

  7. Chapter Two The Civic Mobilization Campaign
    (pp. 41-73)

    The social and political environment facing the Census Bureau in 2000 posed a difficult challenge to completing a full and accurate count of the U.S. population. Population groups that are traditionally hard to locate and hard to count—immigrants, minorities, transients—were a growing proportion of the population as 2000 approached, and the public was generally less inclined toward civic participation. The bureau had experienced a disappointing cooperation rate a decade earlier, and the working assumption at the bureau, in Congress, and among knowledgeable observers was that the 2000 mail-back response would fall below the 1990 rate of 65 percent...

  8. Chapter Three Privacy Concerns and Census Cooperation
    (pp. 74-95)

    Every twenty years the constitutionally mandated decennial census in the United States falls on a presidential election year. In 2000, just as the census mail-back phase got underway, the census became briefly embroiled in the partisan rancor of the heated political environment. Given the broad and bipartisan support for the census mobilization campaign, the Census Bureau had not anticipated such intense and politically charged criticism directed at the census long form, which had just reached one-sixth of America’s households. The criticism was focused on the issue of privacy and the question of whether the census long form was an unwarranted...

  9. Chapter Four Census Cooperation: Community and Household
    (pp. 96-113)

    Census cooperation is often described as a form of civic engagement. In the media attention surrounding the 2000 census, the decennial count was routinely characterized as a “civic ceremony,” one that differs from voting in its nonpartisanship but is similar to voting in that it is a social-political duty that provides important community goods. Because of these parallels, it has long been assumed that the determinants of census cooperation and political participation are similar. Most notably, journalists and scholars have assumed that community involvement (or social capital) predicts census cooperation much as it predicts other forms of civic engagement. In...

  10. Chapter Five Conclusions and Consequences
    (pp. 114-130)

    Every decennial census differs in design and methodology from the one that preceded it.¹ Our inquiry started by setting out the context for the 2000 census because every census is responsive to the inevitable changes in the social-political climate and the demographic context over the ten-year interval. Census design also changes because every census offers lessons for how to do the next one. Although the Census Bureau conducts a “test census” during the planning phase of every census, this is a weak substitute for the real thing—much as the Pentagon’s “war games” are a weak substitute for the for...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 131-139)
  12. References
    (pp. 140-148)
  13. Index
    (pp. 149-156)