I recently had the pleasure to speak with Andrew A. Beveridge, Queens College Professor Emeritus (Sociology) and a nationally recognized expert on the US Census. Professor Beveridge has consulted for The New York Times since 1993, where his analysis of Census data has informed numerous news reports and maps. He and his team developed Social Explorer, which allows users to visualize and map change in the US. (The library provides our users full access to Social Explorer: click here to login.)
We spoke during a break in a busy workday, which found Professor Beveridge providing expert testimony in a Islip Long Island court case involving redistricting and voting rights. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Hello Professor Beveridge! The library has a new guide to citizenship, civic participation, voting, and the Census. I hope our conversation today will help people understand why the Census is so important. You’ve been at this a long time. When did you first start working with US Census data in your teaching and research?
I started in graduate school, assisting an economics professor who worked with Census data. He had computer punch cards in his basement with demographic information from the 1940 Census, and they were so old, the cards were rotting! I organized a team of graduate students to transfer these old, damaged cards to magnetic tape–some were bent, or mildewed. We rented a machine that tried to straighten the punch cards, and ended up getting most of them preserved.
You’re testifying today in a redistricting case. Can you tell me about your history with these issues?
I taught at Columbia from 1973-1981. When I came to Queens College, we moved to Yonkers and I got involved with Yonkers politics. The real fight in Yonkers at the time was about whether the city would comply with court orders on desegregating housing.
The city council decided not to comply with the law, and the judge held them in contempt of court. The fines eventually reached $1 million per day of defiance. I was president of the school board, and worked with the court appointed monitor, working to transfer money to keep the schools open.
In redistricting, Yonkers had split the black community and split the Latino community, and I ended up under court supervision redrawing the districts.
Am I right to guess that Census data is used in these redistricting battles?
Yes. I got involved in census data by working on redistricting, and learning the history and demography of Yonkers. The discrimination and segregation [in Yonkers] can really be measured part and parcel with Census data.
I ended up working with an organization called the Metropolitan Action institute, which was involved in efforts to desegregate the suburbs. And I began working with The New York Times in 1993, using census data to track many trends, including immigration, change in economics, and a host of others.
I’ve also worked on jury composition challenges, which use Census data.
We’ve been doing library programs this fall on social justice, institutional racism, and student activism. Does Census data come into play in these kinds of civic discussions?
Absolutely. With the Census, you can show there’s a housing disparity, or a group is being denied political power by not being represented.
What’s the most important lesson you’d like young people to learn about the Census, and how the US government gathers data about the country? In other words, why is this stuff so important?
There are 2 main things the Census is about: money and power. It’s used to divide power through legislative districting, and distribute $1.5 trillion in federal funding per year that’s tied to the census, as well as state funding. The Census is used to lay out virtually every legislative district in the country.
What are your biggest concerns about Census 2020?
This census is the most fraught in my lifetime. We’ve never seen people play around politically with the Census like this time. I think of Biafra, the Nigerian civil war was triggered by a Census, censuses have triggered wars in other countries. Historically, the Census has always been mandated to collect data on the whole population: not to ignore aliens or anybody in the country, regardless of their citizenship. Now we’re seeing proposals to stop the count early, and eliminate the counts of undocumented people: all of that is an assault on the Census. It’s an effort to undercount minorities and immigrants to tilt the balance of power toward whites and Republicans.
Is the degree of politicization around the US Census new, or have we seen this before?
Well, the 1920 census was originally rejected by Congress, because it showed the increasing political power of the cities, because of the population growth there. There were rural power brokers in Congress who fought that.
Should any of our students and their families be afraid of filling out the Census?
You shouldn’t worry about the data being shared, even if you’re undocumented. You should be more afraid of not filling out the Census!
In general, you should be counted even if you did not fill out the Census, through a statistical technique called “proxy and imputation” responses. [Note: see this guide from the Pew Center to learn more about imputation and the Census.]
Though the Trump Administration is trying to eliminate all proxy and imputed responses. In 2010 this was 7% of all responses, this round due to the pandemic, it may be more. Thanks to a court order, you have until the end of the month to fill out the Census, unless the Supreme Court stops it. So if you haven’t filled it out, do it today.