The mother of all surveys, the 2010 United States Census, may turn out to be the mother of all headaches for the new Census Chief, Robert M. Groves. 

Faced with the possibility of computer glitches, operational missteps, and skyrocketing costs, surveying the nation’s population won’t be an easy task. President Obama selected Groves in early April and passed him the hot potato that’s expected to cost at least $15 billion, more than any previous count. Groves, who authored the books Surveying Victims and Survey Errors and Survey Costs, sounds like he was taylor-made for this position. 

The Government Accountability Office estimates that the mandated decennial head count will cost about $100 for each housing unit, compared with $14, adjusted for inflation, in 1970. 

Glitches, missteps and costs are not the only problem facing Groves. Obama also tossed the soft-spoken University of Michigan sociology professor and survey expert a political football. Counting U.S. residents isn’t just to determine how much each American is paying for the latest bailout. The primary purpose of the census is to determine how to distribute congressional seats and tax dollars.

“With the nomination of Robert Groves, President Obama has made it clear that he intends to employ the political manipulation of census data for partisan gain,” North Carolina Congressman Patrick McHenry told Time magazine. Other lawmakers called Groves an “incredibly troubling selection” who must be watched for “statistical sleight of hand.” Obviously, this is one survey that comes pre-loaded with political dynamite. 

The likelihood of an unhappy Republican or two or a thousand is quite possible. At issue is the surveying method. Groves is in favor of using sampling to measure the country’s population for what he and many experts say will yield more accurate survey results than an individual count, especially among those hardest to reach, such as minorities, the homeless and the poor. Generally, Republicans reach for the antacids when the words survey, sampling, and census appear in the same sentence. The reason? The populations that are hard to count typically support Democrats. 

If Groves didn’t have enough issues with political haggling on The Hill, advocacy groups are also making noise. According to a recent USA Today story, some Hispanic groups are calling for illegal immigrants to boycott the 2010 Census unless immigration laws are changed. 

The National Coalition of Latino Clergy & Christian Leaders, a group that says it represents 20,000 evangelical churches in 34 states, is urging undocumented immigrants not to fill out census forms unless Congress passes “genuine immigration reform.” Meanwhile, other immigrate rights groups say boycotting the census may be filled with good intentions, but is misguided and will only harm those the survey is intended to help.

Besides stepping on a political landmine or two, Groves has another homegrown problem that will impact the census: the economy.

Officials are worried that it will be more difficult to survey people during an economic recession. Among the concerns are families who have been forced out of their homes that could go uncounted, along with the untold numbers of people in flux, living temporarily with other family members, in apartments, in cars, shelters or even on the streets. 

There is also concern that financial hardships will make Americans less likely to answer the door and cooperate with someone administering a survey, fearing that the knock on their door is from a collection agency.

Surveys generally are not thought of as snapshots in history, but the U.S. Census tracks some fascinating milestones in American history.

The fire that destroyed some of the data from the first census in 1790 probably wasn’t the start the founders were anticipating. Nevertheless, the surveying process endured, with the second census in 1800 showing that 5.3 million people lived in the United States, with almost 20 percent of them being slaves.

The 1850 census was a landmark year in American census-taking, as the bureau attempted to count every member of every household, including women, children and slaves. 

The 1890 census ushered in the age of technology, where punched cards and machines reduced the time to publish the results from seven years for the 1880 census to two and a half years. No word on whether or not there were any hanging chads. 

A hanging chad type of controversy may be par for the course for the 2010 Census considering the political, social, and operational combustibility. Grove may go back to his old job as an author, writing the book I’ll Never Conduct Another Government Survey when the 2010 census is completed.

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