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The Census Bureau Changes Its Methods

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

To learn more about the new methods the Census Bureau is using to measure population changes in the nation, we turn to Jay Waite. He's an associate director of the U.S. Census Bureau. He joins us from Suitland, Maryland. Mr. Waite, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. JAY WAITE (U.S. Census Bureau): Thank you.

NORRIS: Now, for many years the census measured demographic changes once every ten years. What's changed now?

Mr. WAITE: Well, we have found that measuring demographic change only once every ten years is really not sufficient for local planners, particularly, who have to make decisions on how to appropriately serve their citizens. So we have instituted a program called the American Community Survey and this year is the first year that data from this survey is coming out for all communities of 65,000 or greater.

So, if you're a local government official and you're trying to make a decision about where to put the nursing home or where to put a bus line or where to put a school, you deserve to have current data and you'll now have data which is only collected last year, rather than eight to ten years ago.

NORRIS: And what kinds of things can you measure and track using this new survey?

Mr. WAITE: Well, for example, you can measure basic demographic things, the age, race and sex of the population, by very small groups. You can also track things like average family size, different social characteristics like educational attainment. You can look at the foreign-born population. That's the kind of things that we're releasing today.

In a couple of weeks, we'll be releasing economic data, which you can measure journey to work, income, poverty status. Later, in October, we'll be releasing household information about conditions of the housing in particular areas. And then, in November, we'll be releasing detailed profiles about individual subgroups. For example, we'll have detailed discussions about the Hispanic population.

NORRIS: Anyone who's engaged in any kind of genealogical research often depends on census data and when you look back, there were often questions that were asked to measure the socioeconomic status of the family. If you go way back, they used to ask the question whether or not the family had a radio in the household and that would say something about the status of that family.

What kind of questions do you use now to glean that kind of information?

Mr. WAITE: Well, of course, as you know, everybody has a radio now because they're all listening to you, but we gather information, for example, about the condition of the house. The famous question about how many bathrooms do you have in the house. That, 50 years ago, was a very topical question because a lot of houses didn't have indoor plumbing.

We're now beginning to try to ask questions a little bit more about what access people have to - do you have access to the Internet? Do you have language issues, which are becoming very important in the United States? If you live in a home where English is not the spoken language and the adults living in that home do not speak English very well, that's a matter of concern for a mayor or a local official. They've got to find some way to communicate to those groups to make sure they're getting the information that they need about the community.

NORRIS: Now, we just heard in our previous piece about the growth in the Latino population. What are some of the other trends that you're seeing with this new data?

Mr. WAITE: Well, there's some interesting trends that we're seeing. The average family size, the average household size, is growing slightly. There's a pretty big increase in the proportion of the population that have bachelor's degrees. The District of Columbia has the largest number of people with a bachelor's degree. Average proportion about 45 percent of the population. An interesting factoid about that is that while they have the highest number of individuals with bachelor's degrees, they have a lower-than-average proportion of people with a high school diploma. So it's a little bit of a dichotomy there.

As far as the foreign-born population, typically we've thought about the foreign-born population as being heavy in the gateway states and that's certainly still true. California, New York, New Jersey and Florida. But what we're also finding with the American Community Survey is a really significant increase in places that we might not have thought about. For example, the state with the largest percentage increase in foreign-born is South Carolina. You take a few counties like Newton County, Georgia, and Pike County, Kentucky, and St. Croix, Wisconsin, all had increases in the foreign-born population in excess of 200 percent.

These are other places where they haven't thought historically thought about as being places where there's a lot of foreign-born, are growing very, very rapidly.

NORRIS: Jay Waite is an associate director for the U.S. Census Bureau. He joined us from Suitland, Maryland. And Mr. Waite, thanks so much for coming in to explain all this for us.

Mr. WAITE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Norris