The Public Interest

Counting heads

William Petersen

Fall 2000

STEVEN Holmes, a New York Times reporter, tells us that  the Bureau of the Census is “one of the most apolitieal of all federal agencies.” But according to Vincent Barabba, a former director of the bureau, “The census is one of the most political things we do.” The contradiction derives in part from the bureau itself. Calling itself “Factfinder of the Nation,” it exercises control over both the allocation of states’ relative weight in the House of Representatives and the annual distribution of nearly $200 billion of federal funds to states and localities. With so much clout and money at stake, it is no wonder that the census attracts power brokers, even if its operations are also, in a different sense, controlled by professional statisticians.

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