Decennial Census: Status of Housing Coverage Check and Postcensus Local Review Programs

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1990-09-25.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                      United States Gimeral Accounting Oface /qzg:     q3

For Release            Decennial Census:    Status of Housing Coverage
on Delivery            Check and Postcensus    Local Review Programs
Expected at
lo:00 a.m. EDT
September 25,

                      Statement  of
                      L. Nye Stevens,  Director
                      Government Business Operations        Issues
                      General Government Division
                      Before the
                      Subcommittee  on Census and Population
                      Committee on Post Office  and Civil    Service
                      House of Representatives

GAO/T-m   - 90 - 63
                    SUMMARYOF STATEMENTBY
                        L. NYE STEVENS
The Census Bureau's coverage improvement programs are
primarily  intended to reduce the historic population
undercount by improving census coverage.   The Bureau noted in
July that its census address list contained about 102 million
housing units compared to its independent estimate at that
point that 104 million  units may actually exist.
The Census Bureau currently     is implementing two of its final
coverage improvement programs.      Both of these programs--the
Housing Coverage Check and Postcensus Local Review--are
designed to identify   omissions from the 1990 address list.
GAO believes that these major coverage improvement programs,
while important,   are not likely   to identify  enough additional
housing units to reconcile    the current address list   with the
independent estimate.     The question whether the gap is real,
that is whether the estimate was incorrect,      whether the
address list   remains incomplete,   or whether the gap is a
product of both, remains open.
The Housing Coverage Check was developed this summer when the
Bureau's research indicated      that housing units were missed
during census address list development efforts.          The Bureau
recanvassed  about 15 million      housing units in targeted areas
nationwide.   GAO believes    that the Bureau was wise to modify
its plans and undertake this major recanvassing        effort.
Nationwide,  about 313,000 housing units have been proposed
for addition  to the Bureau’s      address list  as a result   of the
Housing Coverage Check, which is virtually        complete.
In contrast     to the Housing Coverage Check, the Postcensus
Local Review Program has long been scheduled as a 1990 census
coverage improvement program and is still               in progress.
However, based on its preliminary            observations,      GAO believes
that the program's potential           to significantly      augment housing
unit counts is limited.         First,    the Bureau has budgeted to
recanvass blocks containing         about 2 million        housing units for
the program, substantially         fewer than for the Housing
Coverage Check. Second, widespread local government
participation       in the program is unlikely.           Mostly because
they lacked the resources or independent data for analysis,
less than half of the eligible           governments participated         in an
earlier     phase of the local review program.             In response to a
GAO survey, about 60 percent of those that did not
participate      indicated  they also would not participate           in
Postcensus Local Review.         Finally,     challenged     housing unit
counts on blocks that already have been recanvassed as part
of the Housing Coverage Check will not be reviewed again.
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

We are pleased              to be here today              to discuss         the status         of two
of the Census Bureau's                  final     coverage       improvement            programs
for      the 1990 decennial            census:      Housing Coverage Check and
Postcensus          Local     Review.       Both of these programs                  represent               _
initiatives           by the Bureau to reduce population                         undercounts
resulting          from missed housing             units.        The Bureau acknowledged
in July         1990 that       its   address      list      contained         about     102
million         housing     units     compared to its            independent           estimate
that         104 million      may actually         exist.      My comments are based on
our continuing             effort,     as requested           by the Subcommittee,                    to
monitor         census operations           at Bureau headquarters                 and in the

Both of these programs                 are designed           to identify         omissions
from the Bureau's              1990 address         list.       In the Housing Coverage
Check, the Bureau targeted                      census blocks          for     recanvassing
where count          review      and other        research      indicated         evidence            of
missed housing             units.      Under Postcensus            Local        Review,         all
local        governments       in the United          States     were offered             the
opportunity           to review       and identify           discrepancies         between
census housing             counts     and local       estimates         of housing         units           at   .
the block          level    and target          those blocks       for       possible
recanvass          by the Bureau.           As missed units             are identified

under either           program,       the Bureau intends               to correct         its

address       list      and enumerate           the residents,          provided          those
housing       units      existed         and were occupied          on April         1, 1990.
Neither       of these programs,               however,        is designed          to correct
for     inaccurate            counts     of individuals         residing       in identified
housing       units,          or for     misclassification          of identified              housing
units       as vacant.

My comments on the Housing Coverage Check are based on the
Census Bureau's                management information              reports         and
discussions           with      Bureau headquarters             and regional             officials.
My comments on Postcensus                     Local    Review are based on
discussions            this     month with       Bureau headquarters                and regional
officials        in 7 of the 13 regions,                     and with      local     review
officials        in eight         major cities         (Atlanta,        Baltimore,           Chicago,
Cleveland,           Los Angeles,          New York,         Phoenix,    and Pittsburgh).
We also discussed                local     review     with     the former          chairman       of
the State        Data Center             Steering     Committee and used a survey                      we
did     in June through            August of a random sample of 1,047
governmental            units     that     did not respond          to the Bureau during
Precensus        Local         Review.


The Housing Coverage Check was not part                             of the Census
Bureau's plan at the outset of the decennial.    According to
the Bureau, the Housing Coverage Check was initiated    when

media reports              and its     analysis        of such data as calls                    to the
Bureau's         telephone          assistance        numbers suggested                 that    some
housing      units         might     have been missed by previous                        address        list
development             operations.           The requirements            for    the program--
issued      in July         1990 --identified             a number of sources                  for
targeting         areas where additional                    canvassing      and enumeration
might     be effective,              including        (1) comparison            of independent
estimates         with      census counts,            (2) correspondence                 and phone
calls     that         identified      whole areas or buildings                    that        did not
receive      questionnaires,                 (3) results        of postal        checks,         and
(4) local         knowledge          of census staffs.

AS Of September 19, 1990,                      (see fig.        1) the Bureau's
mahagement information                  system reported            that     about 399,000
blocks      had been recanvassed                 in 12 of its         13 regions               (these
data were not available                   on Kansas City),           which         represented
more than 99 percent                  of the recanvassing            workload             as of that
date.       Given the wide-ranging                    sources     considered             in targeting
blocks,      the number of blocks                 recanvassed        and the proposed
housing      unit        adds varied         widely     on a region-by-region                    basis.
For example,             some 55,130 blocks             were recanvassed                 in the
Atlanta      region         while     only     about 5,500 blocks               were
recanvassed             in the Seattle          region.        As a result          of the
nationwide             program,     about      313,000 housing           units      had been
proposed         for     addition      to the Bureau's            address        list      in the 13


    The ratio           of housing units             added to blocks            recanvassed        also
    varied       significantly.              On average,           according       to the Bureau's
    management information                   reports,        about     three-fourths          of one
    housing        unit     was added for            each block        recanvassed          nationally.
    In the Chicago region,                   it     was about three-tenths                of one
    housing       unit      per block        recanvassed;            in the New York region                 it
    was about one-for-one;                   and in the Boston region                  about 1.6
    housing       units         were added for         each block            recanvassed.

    The scope of recanvassing                       also    varied     significantly          in the
    eight     cities        we contacted,            ranging       from less      than 2 percent
    of total           blocks     in Cleveland,            to about 12 percent              in Atlanta,
    to about 27 percent                  of total      blocks        in New York City.
    Information            about block            recanvassing        was not available            for
    Los Angeles at the time of our interview.                                   Census officials
    in the seven regional                  offices         we contacted         indicated       they
    experienced            no major problem recruiting                   and retaining
    personnel           for Housing Coverage Check recanvassing.

    It   would appear,             Mr.    Chairman,         that     the Bureau was wise to
    modify       its      plans    and undertake            this     major     recanvassing
    effort.       More than 300,000 additional                        housing     units     were
    identified            as a result       of the program,             at an expenditure              of
    approximately  $13 million.  The Bureau recognizes that
    coverage improvement programs like Housing Coverage Check are


        expensive        but believes           it   cannot       ignore       the undercount
        problem that           most of the programs were designed                          to address.


        In contrast           to the Housing Coverage Check, the Postcensus
        Local Review Program has long been scheduled                                   as a 1990 census
        coverage        improvement program and it                       is still      in progress.
        On the basis           of our preliminary             observations,             we believe        that
        its      potential       to improve housing               unit     and       population        counts
        will      be reduced by two factors:                  (1) many local             governments
        will      not participate           in the program,               and-(21      some blocks
        challenged           during     Postcensus      Local Review will                have already
        been recanvassed               during    Housing Coverage Check.                    Since the
        program is still               in progress,         however,        we are unable to
        provide       summary data on total                 blocks        recanvassed       and housing
        units      added.

        As you know, for               the 1990 census,            the local          review program
        has two phases:               one before      Census Day and one after.                        The
        first      phase, Precensus Local Review, was completed                                   in
        February       1990.          In the second phase,                Postcensus      maps and
        housing       unit     counts were mailed             to some 40,000 governmental
        units.        The maps were mailed              during           the period      May   through
        early      August 1990: housing              unit     counts         and group quarters
        pop;lations           were sent out in the latter                     half     of August.




            G o v e r n m e n tal u n i ts          h a d 1 5 w o r k i n g d a y s - - c o m p a r e d to 4 5
            w o r k i n g d a y s in P recensus --to                  review th e B u r e a u 's c o u n ts a n d
            submit challenges                   to th o s e c o u n ts a t th e block level                  where
            th e y believe             th e B u r e a u is in error.                T h e B u r e a u p l a n s to
            c o m p l e te recanvassing a n d p r o v i d e                    fe e d b a c k to local
            g o v e r n m e n ts o n th e results                o f P o s tce n s u s L o c a l R e v i e w b y late
            O cto b e r 1 9 9 0 .          A ccording to th e B u r e a u , th e p r o g r a m is
            currently            on schedule.

            B u r e a u 's R e c a n v a s s i n g W o rkload W ill              V a ry A cross th e N a tio n

            T h e p o te n tial         o f th e P o s tce n s u s L o c a l R e v i e w p r o g r a m to
            i d e n tify        m issed h o u s i n g u n i ts       a n d a d d to th e B u r e a u 's
            p o p u l a tio n      c o u n t d e p e n d s in p a r t o n th e e x te n t            to w h ich local
            g o v e r n m e n t u n i ts     p a r ticip a te       in th e p r o g r a m .      A s o f S e p te m b e r
            1 7 , th e B u r e a u h a d received r e s p o n s e s fro m a b o u t 7 ,0 0 0 - - o r
            a b o u t 1 7 p e r c e n t --of           th e nearly       4 0 ,0 0 0 local      g o v e r n m e n ts in
            th e c o u n try.           A b o u t 1 ,7 0 0 h a d a c c e p te d th e B u r e a u 's
            p o p u l a tio n      e s tim a te s     a n d 5 ,4 0 0 h a d file d       challenges.

            T h e e i g h t m a jor citie s              w e c o n ta c te d     earlier      this     m o n th w e r e
            still      preparing            their       challenges          to . th e B u r e a u 's preliminary
            h o u s i n g c o u n ts.        N o n e theless,        th e s c o p e o f their          planned
            challenges             varies      w idely,         fro m less th a n 4 p e r c e n t o f city
            cens"us blocks              in P h o e n ix to m o r e th a n 5 0 p e r c e n t in C h i c a g o .



        In targeting            blocks     to challenge,                the most common criterion
        being      used by the cities                  we contacted             was     blocks         where the
        Bureau's       counts         were five         or more housing                 units      less than local
        estimates.            Chicago,         on the other             hand, planned to challenge                          all
        blocks      with      differences         of any kind,

        However, many other               governments,                especially          those in small
        communities,            are unlikely            to respond,             based on participation
        rates      in Precensus Local              Review.              The Bureau reports                  that     only         16

        percent       of 21,000 eligible                 governments                participated           in the
        precensus           phase of local         review.              Our random sample                  survey     of
        1,047 of the approximately                       17,000 governments                     that      did not
        respond indicates               that     the actual             participation              rate     was somewhat
        higher.        For example,             17 percent            did not identify                 a significant
        number of omissions               in the Bureau's                    count and therefore                   did not
        respond;       4 percent         more did not respond because a higher                                      level
        government           (for     example,     a    county government)                      responded for           them.
        Overall,       it     appears that         the      actual           participation.rate                in
        Precensus           Local     Review     was    still         less     than half          of eligible

        About 60 percent               of the governments                    that     did not participate
        said    in response to our survey that                            they also do not plan to
        participate           in the Postcensus                 Local     Review program.                   The major
        reasops cited               were (1) a lack of funds,                       expertise,          or other
        resources           to carry     out the program;                 and (2) a lack of

housing        unit      data of their         own at the block              level      required        to
challenge         Bureau counts.             This was especially                true      of smaller
communities           with     populations         of less        than 12,500.            The former
chairman         of the State         Data Center             Steering      Committee         told     us .
that    some small            governments         have a double            disadvantage:             They
lack    the expertise            to carry       out local          review     themselves,             and
they    lack      the funds to hire               someone to do it             for     them.         Most
--about       80 percent --of            the communities            that     do not plan to
participate           in Postcensus          Local      Review are small               communities.

Bureau Plans             for Recanvassinq

Questions         have also         been raised,             Mr. Chairman,       about the
adequacy-of           the Bureau's         Postcensus           Local      Review recanvassing
budget to handle               the challenges           submitted          by local
governments.              In that     regard,         the Bureau has budgeted                  to
recanvass         2 percent --or          about       2 million--housing              units     during
Postcensus         Local       Review,     compared to the estimated                      15 million
housing       units      covered      during      Housing Coverage Check.                      When we
discussed         this       issue with      them, local          review      officials         in two
of the seven Bureau regional                      offices        we contacted          said     the
budgeted         level    would be adequate.                   However, officials              in the
other     five     regions       thought       that     it     was too early          to say
whether       the 2 percent           budgeted         for     recanvassing          was adequate.

During      Postcensus            Local      Review,         all      blocks       for     which
acceptable             documentation          was provided               are eligible            for
recanvass,             provided      that     they were not already                        recanvassed
during      Precensus         Local         Review or Housing Coverage Check.                                   The
Bureau plans             to recanvass            at least           one block            and a maximum of
2 percent          of the housing             units     within           a governmental               unit,
starting         with      the block        with      the largest              positive        housing
unit     difference          and continuing              in descending                order.          As
needed, budgeted              funds for            Postcensus            recanvassing           may be
transferred             among district            offices           within      a Census region.

We asked local              review     officials             in the eight             cities         whether
they thought             the 15 working             day time frame--mandated                          by the
Bureau for             reviewing      housing         unit         counts      and submitting
challenges--            was adequate.              In five          cities,        officials
characterized             the 15 working              day time frame as very
inadequate             or generally         inadequate.                Officials          in two cities
said     that      15 days was generally                     adequate,          while       officials           in
another         city     indicated        that      they had no basis                    to judge.            With
respect         to smaller         governments,              the former            chairman        of the
State      Data Center            Steering        Committee            told     us that        those
governments             were "scared"            by the short             turnaround           for
submitting             Postcensus      Local        Review challenges.

In our
    "   opinion,    it is still  too early to determine if                                              the
recanvassing     budget of 2 percent of the total housing                                               units

will     be adequate.        Several         factors,          however,             will      serve to
reduce the level          of recanvassing                   needed:        (1) many eligible
governments      will      lack    the time,           data,         or resources              to respond
to the Bureau;           (2) as occurred              in the Precensus                     Local    Review,
some governments          will     agree with               the Bureau's             counts        and
therefore      require      no recanvassing;                  and (3) many of the blocks
challenged      by local         governments           will         already         have been
recanvassed      under the Housing Coverage Check Program.                                              For
these     same reasons,          Mr. Chairman,               we agree with                 your
statement      in announcing          this      hearing             that    the Bureau's
remaining      operational         programs--          including            Postcensus             Local
Review-- are unlikely             to eliminate               the gap between the housing
units     and the individuals              counted           so far        by the Bureau and
its     independent      estimates.            This observation                     does not resolve
the question      whether         the gap is real--that                       is,      whether          the
estimate     was too high,           whether          there     are still              substantial
numbers of housing           units      that         recanvassing             does not find,                  or
whether     the gap is a combination                        of both.

Improved Feedback for              Postcensus               Local     Review

Since some local          governments           were dissatisfied                      with       the
feedback     they received           after      Precensus             Local         Review,        we
examined the Bureau's              plans       for     feedback            after       the Postcensus
phase.      To the Bureau's           credit,          it     has decided              to provide
much'more detailed           feedback        on the results                   of Postcensus               as

. -

      compared to Precensus Local Review.                                  On a block-by-block
      basis,       for      all      blocks         challenged      during     the Postcensus                 phase,
      the Bureau will                   provide       local     governments          with      the net change
      in housing            unit        counts       populations.

      Feedback to governmental                         units     on the results              of Precensus
      Local Review was very limited:                              Governments were simply
      advised        that         their      challenges         had been accepted               for    review
      and informed                of the total          number of blocks              that      were
      recanvassed.                 No     information          waq provided         on the results              of
      recanvassing.                 The former          chairman         of the State           Data Center
      Steering           Committee           told     us that     this     limited      Precensus
      feedback may discourage                        governmental          units      from participating
      in Postcensus                Local      Review.

      While planned                Postcensus          feedback       represents        a significant
      departure           from feedback               provided      during     Precensus,             there     are,
      nonetheless,                limitations.           For example,          the Bureau does not
      plan to provide                   data on net changes on blocks                        that     were not
      challenged.                 Further,          the source of the net change for
      challenged           blocks --Housing              Coverage Check, Postcensus                      Local
      Review, or other                    Census operations--will                  not be provided.
      Finally,'          the Bureau does not plan to furnish                            governmental
      units       with      information             on the net change to the total
      popu\ation           estimate          given      to them along with              Postcensus
      housing       unit          counts.


    The promise           of improved feedback could                   encourage more
    communities           to participate          in POStCenSuS Local               Review.         However,
    not all.of        the eight       major cities             we contacted         were aware of the
    Bureau's       plans.        Two of those cities              said they expected                to
    receive       the same type of feedback                    they    received      after       Precensus
    Local      Review, two were not               sure    of what feedback they would
    receive       after      Postcensus,         and an official              in one city        indicated
    that      he did not expect           to receive           any feedback.          The other           three
    cities      expected        block-by-block           feedback        as planned by the Bureau.

    Postcensus        Maps Did Not Pose Major Problems

    The Bureau appears to have improved the accuracy                                  and usefulness
    of the maps it            provides     to local           governments        as part      of the local
    review      program.         During    Precensus Local               Review, local           governments
    expressed       widespread        dissatisfaction             with        the quality        of the
    census maps.             However, for         Postcensus          Local     Review,      five    of the
    six      major cities        we COntacted that              submitted        map corrections            to
    the Bureau during             Precensus Local              Review indicated           that
    all/almost        all,     or most of the corrections                      they had identified
    during      precensus        were reflected          in the Postcensus             Local        Review
    maps that       the      Bureau   sent to them.              Officials        in New York City,
    for    example,       said that       most     of the corrections              they      identified
    had been made, and that                the New York Regional                  Census Center
    usually       had an acceptable              explanation          in cases where it             did not
    make suggested            changes.      Los Angeles was not sure of the extent

to which       its     suggested       changes were made.                Two cities         we
contacted       had not submitted             any map corrections                 to the Bureau
during      Precensus Local            Review.

Bureau regional            officials       informed        us that       local     governments           did
not express          widespread        dissatisfaction           with     their      Postcensus
maps.       We asked officials             in 7 of the Bureau's                  13 regional       census
centers      to estimate         how many governmental                  units     in their       reg'ions
reported      problems         with    Postcensus        maps.       Five of the seven
regions      estimated         that    some or few governments                   had reported
problems,      while       two were not sure of the magnitude                         of problems
reported.        For example,           the Denver region            was one of the regions
reporting       that     some governmental              units    had reported          map problems.
The Denver official              estimated       that     between        150 and 200
governmental           units    had called       in with        problems:         however,       there
are more than 5,200 governmental                        units    in this         region.

This concludes           my prepared        statement,          Mr. Chairman.              My

colleagues       and I would be pleased                  to respond to questions.