Number crunchers eager for release of census data

Results interest more than politicians

Staff WriterApril 9, 2002 

For those in the know about numbers, these are heady times. The U.S. Census Bureau begins releasing this week the first state-by-state demographic profiles from the 2000 census: a catalog of data on race, Hispanic origin and the voting age population, down to the city block level.

The chief intent is to help politicians redraw election districts. But demographers, marketers, government planners and academicians also are eagerly anticipating the first hard population numbers in a decade to help them study population trends, draft marketing strategies and decide where to put new libraries and schools.

"The census is the demographers' dream," said John Kasarda, who teaches business demographics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Their only regret is it happens only once every 10 years."

By law, the Census Bureau has until March 31 to roll out redistricting data for each state. Virginia and New Jersey are expected to be the first to receive data, with nine others scheduled for later in the week and 12 more next week. No date has been set for North Carolina's data dump, but it is likely to be the week of March 19.

Already, the General Assembly's number-crunching staff is getting ready to redraw electoral districts for the U.S. House and the state legislature. The task is to ensure that districts reflect the state's population growth, as well as minority representation.

But others interested in the new numbers have other motives in mind. For Gayle Fuguitt, it is how to sell Cheerios.

A UNC graduate who heads data analysis and market research efforts for General Mills in Minneapolis, Fuguitt said the population statistics coming out this month will undergird all the consumer research the food conglomerate will conduct over the next decade.

"One of the things we're most anxious to do is to get an accurate reflection of the face of America," Fuguitt said. "What the census helps us do is get a really clear snapshot of the American population."

For instance, armed with new data on race and Hispanic origin, and with new Census Bureau salary and age information to come later, General Mills can research the breakfast cereal or yogurt preferences of families with children that fit in certain income brackets and reflect the nation's racial and ethnic mix.

"Then when we go out and ask people what they like and what they don't like," Fuguitt said, "we know that the answers that they give will be more representative of the U.S. population than if we weren't using the census data as a guideline."

In Maja Vouk's office in downtown Raleigh, the census offers another opportunity: getting a firm grasp on Wake County's breakneck growth over the past 10 years.

As the demographics expert for Wake County's planning department, Vouk has had to settle for population estimates, which can be notoriously dicey during periods of rapid growth such as those the Triangle has experienced in the 1990s.

For one thing, Vouk is dying to know whether the Census Bureau was right in estimating Wake County's growth rate in the 1990s at 37.7 percent, the fastest clip for an urbanized county in the state.

"When the census comes out, it will give us a reality check," she said.

Analyzing growth patterns within the county will give officials a better idea of how to plan for future growth, with new schools, libraries and other facilities.

On the day the latest Wake statistics are ready, Vouk will post them on the county's Web site, along with user-friendly maps, at web.co.wake.nc.us/planning/demographics/pop/census.

When the system is fully up and running, perhaps this summer, online users will find census data combined with school enrollment figures, building permit information and other statistics.

"The planning department is trying to be a data source of choice," Vouk said.

At UNC's Kenan-Flagler School of Business, Kasarda said he and his colleagues are itching to dive into the new census figures. Research projects will include analyses of the changing racial and ethnic demographics of cities and suburbs, employment trends and whether cities in the Northeast and Midwest, in particular, rebounded in the 1990s after losing population in the 1980s.

"We're all excited about getting our research updated with the 2000 census results," said Kasarda, director of the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise. "It's going to be an extremely rich database."

Staff writer Ned Glascock can be reached at 829-4557 or nedg@nando.com

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