December 7, 2001

Census Errors May Affect City Districts

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The Census Bureau made nationwide errors in reporting the locations of certain populations, including thousands of Cornellians living in dormitories.

“The clearest cases of error that we’ve found involve people living in close quarters,” said Warren Brown Ph.D. ’82, senior research associate in the Cornell Institute of Social and Economic Research.


These errors “need to be corrected because they can affect both the city and town [of Ithaca] negatively in many ways,” said Assemblyman Martin A. Luster (D-125th).

In one census block on North Campus, for example, the population count jumped from 110 residents in 1990 to 5,882 in 2000. Loosely defined, a census block represents a population of 100 people and may vary in size, but a census block may also signify an entire group quarter, such as a dormitory or prison.

In a different census block on North Campus, the population count dropped from 1,100 in 1990 to 2 in 2000.

C.U. Dorms

“It appears that the census count might have attributed all of Cornell’s dormitories to a single place on North Campus,” Brown said.

The Census Bureau probably correctly located populations living in fraternities and sororities, as well as individuals living in private houses and apartments.

“In most cases, they counted the fraternity and sorority populations correctly, but they missed the dorms,” said Thomas Mank, planning analyst for the Tompkins County Department of Planning.

The figure for the total number of people also appears error-free: the population of Tompkins County increased from 94,097 to 96,501 people from 1990 to 2000, while the population of the city of Ithaca dropped from 29,541 to 29,287 (according to current official figures).

The population of Ithaca in 2000 was about 400 people less than the official number, corresponding to students living in North Campus who actually reside in the town of Ithaca, Mank said.

“There is always an undercount, but this time around, this error appears to be smaller than it has been in the past,” Brown said.

The Census Bureau will resolve any population placement errors for those municipalities that file a challenge.

“Ithaca has filed a challenge, and if the challenge is upheld, then the city and the town of Ithaca will receive a letter [from the Census Bureau] telling them what the accurate count should have been,” Brown said.

He added, “A problem is that the Census Bureau releases information on income and education [among other demographics] that is used in programs to allocate money, but these numbers will not be re-released.”

Without such information, certain programs might receive inappropriate funding.

“Those details are important for housing and urban development programs … and are every bit as important as the total number of people,” Luster said. “If that information is not available, then some areas may receive less funding than they deserve, and other areas may receive more funding than they deserve.”

Misplacement also creates problems when delineating districts, which are based on population density.

The misplacement of thousands of students on Cornell’s campus causes problems because the border between the city of Ithaca and the town of Ithaca runs through North Campus — the townhouses and Ecology House lie within the town’s borders.

“There are [about] 405 people who were counted in the city who should be in the town of Ithaca,” Mank said.

Indeed, the town of Ithaca filed a lawsuit against the Tompkins County Board of Representatives, which is currently undergoing the appeal process.

The Charter Review Committee of the County Board of Representatives redrew county districts using revised data. These unofficial numbers most likely place residents in their true locations, and a local court upheld the Charter Review Committee’s new districts, according to Mank.

Nevertheless, based on unofficial correspondence with members of the Census Bureau, the corrected data will probably receive recognition as the official figures, Mank said. An official response is expected by the end of this year but may arrive as early as next week.

Populations living in dormitories in Ithaca College were also misplaced by the Census Bureau, but the effects of this are minimal because the misplacement does not cross any borders, according to Mank.

Other places affected by the misplacement of populations include the city of Oneonta, home of the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oneonta.

However, “the most egregious mistake was at the Green Haven Correctional Facility,” Brown said.

The 2,192 inmates landed mysteriously in a town 27 miles to the north, in a census block that is a farm field, Brown noted.

However, the total number of misplacements has not yet been determined, as the review sanctioned by the Census Bureau continues.

“The geographic coding got screwed up, and nobody has been able to figure out how many such mistakes were made,” Brown said.

Archived article by Peter Lin