Commentary: Pop. 300,000,000: Sorry, Baby

Why the Census Bureau is probably late -- or early -- to this demographic party

Newborn babies with scrunched-up faces and tiny caps on their heads. Social significance. A big, round number. And to top it off, a breathless, second-by-second countdown. No wonder people went gaga when the U.S. population supposedly hit 300 million at precisely 7:46 a.m. EDT on Oct. 17. The portentous moment was celebrated with cake and punch at the Census Bureau and goofy headlines like "Very close but no cigar for Newburgh baby boy."

Well, sorry, but I'm not buying it. I hate to be a party pooper, but the population clock countdown was a phony. The chance that 7:46 was the actual "300 million moment" is infinitesimally small. The clock could be wrong by not just minutes or hours but weeks, months, possibly even a year or more. To put it bluntly, the Census Bureau's POPClock is (well-meant) poppycock.

The underlying problem is that it's easier to measure the mass of Jupiter than it is to get a good fix on the elusive U.S. population. In 2000 the Census Bureau's count came in at 281.4 million, fully 6.9 million more than the bureau's own estimate. If population estimates are as wrong in this decade as they were in the last one, then by my calculation the U.S. actually hit 300 million back around May of 2005.

To be fair, Census is probably doing a better job of estimation this decade. For one thing, since 2000 the bureau has dramatically improved its method for measuring immigration. It is using a new monthly review called the American Community Survey, which gathers information that used to be collected in the infamous decennial "long form."

So let's be generous and say the population count this time is off by no more than plus or minus 500,000. That still means the magic moment could be anytime between this past August and this coming December.

The Census Bureau is the first to admit that the POPClock on its Web site and at its Maryland headquarters could be running fast or slow. "Nobody in Suitland [the headquarters] believes it's down to the minute or anywhere close," says Howard Hogan, the bureau's associate director for demographic programs.

On the plus side, the hoopla around that 300 million number gives demographers and their work a rare moment in the spotlight. "We kind of joke here around the office that, at least for some time, people will know what the population of the U.S. is," says Carl Haub, senior demographer at the Population Reference Bureau in Washington. He says he has seen estimates by members of the general public "as low as 2 million and as high as a billion."

So, sure, the population clock serves its purpose. Still, you didn't catch me hanging around the maternity wards with the other reporters at 7:46 a.m. on Oct. 17, hoping to grab a bawling sound bite from Lucky 300,000,000. Harrumph.

By Peter Coy

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