2010 Census:

Overseas Enumeration Test Raises Need for Clear Policy Direction

GAO-04-470: Published: May 21, 2004. Publicly Released: Jun 21, 2004.

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Robert N. Goldenkoff
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In the 1990 and 2000 Censuses, U.S. military and federal civilian employees overseas were included in the numbers used for apportioning Congress. Currently, the U.S. Census Bureau (Bureau) is assessing the practicality of counting all Americans abroad by holding a test census in France, Kuwait, and Mexico. GAO was asked to (1) assess the soundness of the test design, and (2) examine what past court decisions have held about Americans' rights and obligations abroad.

Although the overseas enumeration test was designed to help determine the practicality of counting all Americans abroad, because of various methodological limitations, the test results will only partially answer the Bureau's key questions concerning feasibility, data quality, and cost. For example, one research questions asks, "How good is the quality of the data?" However, the Bureau will only measure item nonresponse, which indicates whether a person completed a particular question. As a measure of quality, it is far from complete. Similarly, although a key research objective was to determine the cost of counting Americans overseas, the Bureau's data will not inform the cost of conducting future tests or an overseas enumeration in 2010. Overall, the Bureau overstated the test's ability to answer its key research objectives. Overseas Americans have various rights and obligations to federal programs and activities. For example, Americans abroad are generally taxed on their worldwide income and can vote in federal elections, but are generally not entitled to Medicare benefits. There is nothing in the Constitution, federal law, or court decisions that would either require the Bureau to count overseas Americans, or not count this population group. As a result, Congress would need to enact legislation if it wanted to require the Bureau to include overseas Americans in the 2010 Census. Counting Americans abroad as part of the census would add new risks to an enterprise that already faces an array of challenges. Therefore, it will be important for Congress to decide whether overseas Americans should be counted as part of the census or counted as part of a separate survey or whether there are so many obstacles to a successful count regardless of the approach that the Bureau should shelve any plans for further research and testing. To the extent a second test is required, the Bureau will need to take steps to develop a more rigorous design.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Congress has come to an early decision and will not require the Census Bureau to enumerate Americans living overseas for the 2010 Census. Given the complexities involved in counting Americans living overseas Congress does not wish to divert resources away from the stateside enumeration.

    Matter: In order to give the Bureau as much planning time as possible, Congress may wish to consider coming to an early decision on whether the Bureau should be required to enumerate overseas Americans, and if so, whether they should be counted as part of the decennial census or by some other, separate data collection effort.

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: We recommended that Congress discuss with the Bureau how data collected on Americans living overseas will be used (e.g. apportionment, redistricting, allocating funds, or a tally). The recommendation is closed and not implemented because at this time, Congress does not wish to divert resources away from the stateside 2010 Census in order to collect data on Americans living overseas.

    Matter: Should Congress desire an overseas count--be it part of the decennial census or a separate data collection effort--it may wish to consider telling the Bureau how the data would be used (e.g., for purposes of apportionment, redistricting, allocating federal funds, or a tally of the U.S. overseas population). This information would enable the Bureau to more thoroughly evaluate procedures and resources needed to meet Congress's specific requirements, and ultimately provide Congress with better information with which to gauge the feasibility of such an approach.


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