1990 Census: Undercounting Minorities

March 10, 1989

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The 1990 census—the 21st decennial census—will be the most automated and, quite possibly, the most accurate in the nation's history. But critics say the 1990 census could be even more accurate if the government would make a statistical adjustment to correct for what everyone agrees will be a large undercount of blacks and other minorities. The Commerce Department has rejected this suggestion, and some say the reasons are largely political.

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In October 1987 the Commerce Department announced that there would be no statistical adjustment of the 1990 census figures to correct for what is virtually certain to be a high undercount of blacks, Hispanics and other minorities. “We do not play with the numbers,” Commerce Under Secretary for Economic Affairs Robert Ortner said in announcing the decision.

Although not all senior officials at the Census Bureau were distressed by the decision of their parent organization, Barbara A. Bailar, the associate director for statistical standards and methodology, was. She had grappled with the adjustment question for years and was convinced that a valid statistical adjustment could and should be made. In her view, the Commerce Department had intruded into the bureau's professional domain, disregarded a “very broad consensus” of expert opinion that adjustment was feasible and overruled a bureau decision, made that spring, to proceed with plans for an adjustment. In January 1988, having worked at the bureau for nearly three decades, she resigned in protest. She is now the executive director of the American Statistical Association in Alexandria, Va.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
May 03, 2019  The 2020 Census Updated
May 14, 2010  Census Controversy
May 01, 1998  Census 2000
Mar. 10, 1989  1990 Census: Undercounting Minorities
Feb. 29, 1980  Census Taking, 1980
Mar. 18, 1970  Census Taking, 1970