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A Brief and Qualitative Anthropological Study Exploring the Reasons for Census Coverage Error Among Low Income Black Households

Peter Hainer

KEY WORDS: omissions, family structure, residence, mobility, privacy, confidentiality, interviewer error, biculturalism


This qualitative study is based on ethnographic interviews the author conducted with 23 informants in the winter of 1986-87, as well as his observations of Current Population Survey interviews. The paper examines three potential sources of coverage errors in poor Black households: errors that result from the organization and characteristics of families and households, errors arising from fear of disclosing vulnerable information about households and individuals, and errors that arise from enumeration procedures and incentives for interviewers.

The families represented in this study were large, loosely structured networks of kin and non-kin that were spread over several addresses. The author observes that membership in the unit is based on adequate performance of family roles, and that residence may be transient and may be contested by others in the household. His informants were concerned to enforce a consistent presentation of the household to official agencies with which it was in contact, and the “official” version often did not match where people resided. His informants confused census enumerators with other officials, and did not trust pledges of confidentiality. Their fears of the consequences led them to be unwilling to disclose information that might risk vulnerable sources of income. All of these factors were judged to contribute to coverage errors.

The author offers several recommendations that might improve survey coverage, including anonymous interviews (no names or identifying information collected), and more support and encouragement for interviewers to record transient household residents.

CITATION: Peter C. Hainer. 1987. A Brief and Qualitative Anthropological Study Exploring the Reasons for Census Coverage Error Among Low Income Black Households. Report prepared under contract with the Census Bureau. April 8, 1987.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Research Division

Created: October 24, 2007
Last revised: October 24, 2007

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Statistical Research Division | (301) 763-3215 (or |   Last Revised: October 08, 2010