Projections vs Censuses: a brief note on their political impact.

Byron Villacís

Contemporary public administrations seem to surrender to the need to digitize as much as possible1. Nowadays, it appears to be a desirable transformation: less paper, more automation, increased efficiency, and less time spent on paperwork that governments sometimes overwhelm us with. However, this tendency also has unintended consequences with political, economic, and social effects. We need to stop and evaluate all the costs and benefits of digitization and bureaucratic automation. In this post, I briefly exemplify the differences that can appear if we minimize the importance of a logistical operation such as the population census and we fall in the overconfidence of trusting population projections.

Population censuses are normally completed every ten years. Censuses serve –among many other things– to redefine political participation through jurisdiction allocations. For example, in the United States, the census results define the number of seats each state receives in the House of Representative within the U.S. Congress. This not only has implications for legislative administration, but also for the electoral votes used to elect the president in the Electoral College. Therefore, each decade the results of the census are used to adjust whether a state will have more, equal, or less electoral seats and votes compared to the previous decade.

Now, what would happen if there were no census? The easiest answer is to use population projections. Advantageously, the advancement of statistical methods allows us to have better estimates that project demographic flows (fertility, mortality, and migration) in an increasing precise way. However, even high-quality projections differ from reality, and this distinction has concrete political effects. A difference between a projection and the result of the census can easily reconfigure the political structure of a country. That is what has happened with the latest results of the U.S. population census published on April 26, 2021; namely, in a country where its population projections benefit from high-quality administrative records. These results officially report the population distribution and its growth for each of the 50 States. Let’s see what happens if we compare these results with the 2020 population projections published in 2017. The following graph allows us to see this variation, showing significant differences between these two scenarios (Note: we only show those states where there is a change in the number of seats according to the variations in population).

Source: US Census Bureau and Election Data Services

If these differences are reported in a country where the quality of its statistical system is high and where there is an academic community that monitors the work of public entities, what happens in countries where the statistical system is weak and population projections depend on medium or low quality sources? This should make us think about the true benefits of overestimating the digitization of bureaucratic processes. The absence of population censuses has been a common consequence due to more frequent budget cuts and to unpredictable threats such as the pandemic, particularly in the Global South. This has caused the emergence of voices that tend to minimize the need of censuses and to rely more on population projections or on administrative databases, usually embedded in the narrative of ‘more digitization is always better’. It is worth clarifying that population projections and the strengthening of administrative records are convenient –especially for countries in the Global South. However, we must be clear that these processes do not replace a census2. Ignoring these differences have significant political impacts in our daily reality, which should force us to think carefully about all the costs associated to the frenzy of digitize everything.

  1. There is a debate about the difference between digitization and digitalization. For simplicity, in this post I use digitizing as the process of converting information from analog sources to digital ones, which implies disregarding logistical exercises. For example, the executing a population census sometimes is disregarded to prefer the population count based on digital population records, such as social security or civil registry databases.
  2. It is important to note that population projections in countries of the Global South are highly heterogeneous and suffer from problems such as outdated administrative records or lack of sustained funding.

Un pensamiento en “Projections vs Censuses: a brief note on their political impact.

  1. The importance of the demographic census is enormous, completely agree. But there are very different forms of getting a portrait of the population, at a moment in time, even from administrative records only (as in Nordic countries). So, it is worth clarifying the different types of demographic census data gathering. Also, although the reference here is the USA census, which has high coverage (and more uniform across country), I would call for the importance of mentioning the differential coverage of a Census in different countries.

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