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The Hard Count

The Political and Social Challenges of Census Mobilization

D. Sunshine Hillygus, Norman H. Nie, Kenneth Prewitt, Heili Pals

Publication Year: 2006

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.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

Title Page

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pp. vii-viii

About the Authors

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

THIS RESEARCH WOULD not have been possible without the generous support of The Russell Sage Foundation and a consortium of private foundations including The Ford Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and The Carnegie Corporation of New York. Sunshine Hillygus also received financial support from the Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences...

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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...

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Chapter One: The Social Context and the Political Climate

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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...

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Chapter Two: The Civic Mobilization Campaign

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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...

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Chapter Three: Privacy Concerns and Census Cooperation

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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...

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Chapter Four: Census Cooperation: Community and Household

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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...

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Chapter Five: Conclusions and Consequences

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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...


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pp. 131-139


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pp. 140-148


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pp. 149-156

E-ISBN-13: 9781610442886
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871543639
Print-ISBN-10: 087154363X

Page Count: 176
Publication Year: 2006