Professor Dan Lichter: Census drives evidence-based decisions

As the U.S. Census bureau continues to release data on state demographics, researchers, public officials and program managers across the country are digging into the new information to make decisions about everything from construction projects to quality-of-life issues and emergency services.

EBL sat down this week with Professor Daniel  Lichter, an expert in population studies and public policy at the College of Human Ecology, to talk about the 2010 census and its implications for using data to drive real-life decisions. 

Lichter called the decennial  census “the most important statistical gathering exercise in the entire United States.”  Here are some of this other thoughts about the event.

EBL: Can you describe the historical significance of the census?

Lichter:  We’ve had census every year since 1790. It’s required by U.S. Constitution.  It is conducted to insure the one person, one vote idea – to determine the number of seats each state would receive in the U.S. House of Representatives and to realignvoting districts in each state every ten years.

EBL: How has our use of the information changed over the years?

Lichter: The census is also vital for program planning and public policy. It’s always been used in some sense for those sorts of things, but it’s used now more than ever before. How do we know where to build new highways or schools or whether we need a new waste water treatment plant?

“Today, increasingly, we use census data for identifying particular populations and areas with specific needs so we can more effectively target resources to those areas.  The census is vital for earmarking public funds. It also has a huge constituency in the private sector in terms of marketing. It helps companies decide, for example, where to build new stores.

EBL: How did the 2010 census pan out?

Lichter: It’s probably the most successful census ever in terms of coverage. The census bureau has become very good at identifying hard-to-reach populations and reaching out them.

People should always fill out their census schedules when they get them because it reflects whether they’re accurately represented in Congress and whether they receive their fair share of revenues.  By law, these data are strictly confidential to insure completeness and accuracy.

(The U.S. Census Director recently spoke at Cornell about how his organization was able to collect accurate information. You can read about his talk by clicking here.)

EBL: How do you use census data in your research?

Lichter:  I’m very much interested in the changing racial and demographic composition of the U.S. population. We are almost to the point now where half of the births in the United States are to populations other than non-Hispanic whites.  We are rapidly moving toward a  majority-minority society.

I’m interested in what that means, not only in terms of educating children now, but what it means for the labor force 20 years out.  What we do or don’t do for minority populations today is going to have a major effect on our country 20 years from now.

I’m also interested in racial segregation, and to what extent racial and ethnic groups live near each other. Our population is becoming more diverse, but many communities and neighborhoods are also becoming more segregated. Some of my work tries to understand how race relations are reflected in the geographic distribution of people.


  1. L.B. says:

    I moved from TN to OK 5 years ago, and now live on our small family farm. Each year, I have been confronted with a “census survey”. Every year! Now 5 years running, and today I got another notice in the mail, that I had been selected ” at random” to be a participant in another round of this. Every year???

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