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'Your World': Census Director Robert Groves on Why Numbers Can Be Trusted

This is a rush transcript from "Your World With Neil Cavuto," July 13, 2010. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

NEIL CAVUTO, ANCHOR: In the meantime, the count is over. Now the checking and rechecking is on, the census winding down, the outcome to determine $400 billion spent over the next 10 years. But with possible double counting, will the results actually be reliable?

To the guy at the center of it all, the Census Director Robert Groves. He joins us right now.

Director Groves, good to have you, sir.

ROBERT GROVES, DIRECTOR, U.S. CENSUS BUREAU: Good afternoon, Neil. How are you?

CAVUTO: I’m fine.

You know, all this comes at a time when you have so many talking about double counting, over-counting, unreliable workers knocking on people’s doors, and not doing what they should. But we will get into some of that, Director, but, bottom line, should we trust the final figures you spit out?

GROVES: Well, we want to be as transparent as possible in all our procedures.

So, you mentioned duplication and missed units. We actually have a set of procedures built into our operations that check on all those things. And as soon as we get evaluations on those operations, we will share them publicly, so we can all make the judgment about how good the 2010 census is.

CAVUTO: Still, there were reports — and we have had a number of people were counters for you, sir, who said that it was routine that these kind of mistakes were made and furthermore that the folks doing the counting were themselves counted again and again as new jobs.

What do you make of that?

GROVES: Well, those are two different things.

Let me first note that with — we had about 575,000 people knocking on doors, on 47 million households’ doors. When you have that large of a work force, things happen, unfortunately. What — our job I think is to be vigilant about those and act on them very quickly when we see any of the bad things happening, and then repair whenever we — we see bad things happening.

And I think we have done that well.

(CROSSTALK)

CAVUTO: Then, what do you think, Director, the error rate is, I mean, if you have to guesstimate?

GROVES: Well, we won’t know for several months, until we do our evaluative studies.

I can tell you, last decade, in the 2000 census, the best estimate that people use is that we undercounted by about 1.4 percentage of the population.

CAVUTO: All right. So let’s say we have a 350 million population. A similar error rate would be to the tune of three-and-a-half to four million folks, right?

GROVES: Yes. So, you’re in that range, yes.

CAVUTO: OK. When we do get these figures out, what happens to those who didn’t comply? What happens to those who didn’t send the form back in, who didn’t answer their door when your folks knocked? Are they going to the big house or what? What’s going to happen to them?

GROVES: Well, you’re — implicit in your question is the observation that the census is indeed a mandatory thing. It’s — it’s actually been mandatory since the first Congress passed the Census Act in...

(CROSSTALK)

CAVUTO: Has anyone gone to jail for not complying ever?

(CROSSTALK)

GROVES: We have learned I think over the decades that prosecution actually doesn’t yield a better census, and we instead appeal to people’s notion of civic duty. And I can tell you the vast majority of the public did comply.

CAVUTO: So, no one has ever gone to jail for not complying?

(CROSSTALK)

CAVUTO: I’m sorry. But no one has ever gone to jail for not complying?

GROVES: I think way back in time, that may have been true.

CAVUTO: Right.

GROVES: We would have to check our history, but in my lifetime it hasn’t happened.

CAVUTO: There are so many concerns as well about not just the number of people you hired, Director, but whether they were up to the job. In the New York metropolitan area, I remember there was a story about they were supposed to go and ask the 10 basic questions, how many live in the house, the racial breakdown, et cetera, and when it came to any of the racial stuff, a lot of them didn’t do it.

I think the figure was close to half of the questioners never even raised it. Doesn’t that, for whatever reason, negate what you were trying to do if this is multiplied in a lot of other cities, a lot of other areas?

GROVES: Yes. If — if indeed that were widespread, that would be of concern on — on getting racial counts for — for different domains.

We redoubled our training efforts on that. That was a — a small number of cases that were viewed. We’re hopeful that that’s not a widespread activity. And we have a checking process. Every enumerator that goes out will have some of their work redone.

CAVUTO: Right.

GROVES: And we match up cases to detect it in those kinds of behaviors.

CAVUTO: Yes, but you have a lot of condo buildings, apartment buildings where enumerators for — your word there — those try to ask the questions, are not even allowed. So, how do you allow for that?

GROVES: Well, I want to thank those condo associations and doormen and building managers that have really helped us out. We have also used the good graces of local officials to call into those apartment buildings to make sure that the civic duty that’s inherent in a census is well understood by — by those buildings.

We have largely succeeded on that...

CAVUTO: Yes.

GROVES: ...but there are always pockets in this diverse society.

CAVUTO: Indeed. Indeed. And I don’t want to pick apart the little stuff.

I do want to ask you a general question, sir, how you count illegals. The talk is there are upwards of 18 million of them in this country. Is there any way to get a final figure on this? Because, obviously, they’re not volunteering information.

GROVES: Well, as you know, regardless of your documentation status, regardless of whether you’re a citizen or not, Congresses have specified that we count everyone. So, that’s the law we follow. We’re attempting to count every resident of the United States.

There are impediments in a lot of different sub-populations. We have had a wonderful outpouring of support from about a quarter-of-a-million organizations, grassroots organizations, that are trying to get the word out that participating in the census is a safe thing. We rely on those partners.

CAVUTO: But, obviously, it’s tough, because they fear retribution, and that’s natural, but are we going to get a final figure on illegals or even a final estimate? Is it your sense, Director, that we have more than 18 million illegals in this country?

GROVES: Well, as you know, the census questionnaire does not ask citizenship. So, when the census is finished, we won’t be able to separate a count of those who are undocumented from those who are citizens and documented non-citizens.

CAVUTO: See, isn’t — that’s where I was trying to get to, Director. Isn’t that the problem? When you have a general net final count, and there’s no way of distinguishing whether in that count are people who shouldn’t be counted because they shouldn’t be here, doesn’t that make the data questionable at the least and faulty in the worst?

GROVES: Well, I want to remind us that, since the time of the first Congress in 1790, the specification by Congress is count everyone, whether they’re documented or not. That’s what we’re doing. And so we don’t have a question on citizenship.

(CROSSTALK)

CAVUTO: I know that, but we have never had an illegal problem like we do today. And it’s not a small issue. It’s 5 percent maybe or more of our population, right?

GROVES: Well, I think if you look at the waves of immigration over the breadth of history of this country, we — this is not a new problem for us.

(CROSSTALK)

CAVUTO: Well, the illegal part — the illegal part of it is.

(CROSSTALK)

CAVUTO: The illegal part of it is, right?

(CROSSTALK)

GROVES: ...challenge censuses face always.

GROVES: I’m not sure, if you — if you carefully read the history, whether this is an unusually large problem or not.

(CROSSTALK)

CAVUTO: No, the only reason I raise it, Director — and I don’t mean to badger you, sir, but I — what I — when we can’t distinguish between a final count of Americans vs. a final, accurate count of those who truly are Americans, no offense to you, I’m just wondering if this was worth your while, all this money or all your counters’ money.

GROVES: Well, but, remember, the purpose of the census is to count all residents of the country, whether they’re citizens or not.

Now, we have other sample surveys, those done by the government and by others...

(CROSSTALK)

CAVUTO: Yes, but those who respond...

(CROSSTALK)

CAVUTO: But you see what I’m saying? But those who respond, Director, their high response rate translates into getting more money for their community, their town, what have you.

So, if you have a high response from illegals, ironically, that is going to help a given community get more money because they have more illegals. It’s, I don’t know, just kind of weird, right?

GROVES: Well, the — you’re right about the apportionment of funds based on those who are residing in the area. That’s the way the laws are written. And they follow the census numbers. You’re right.

CAVUTO: All right.

Director, we will see what happens. Thank you very much. Very nice of you to stop by.

GROVES: Oh, it was great being with you. Thank you.

CAVUTO: All right, Director Robert Groves. All right.

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