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Demographer Ness Sandoval On What The St. Louis Region Can Expect From The 2020 Census

Ness Sandoval researches demography and the spatial hierarchy of inequality in American cities at St. Louis University.
Ness Sandoval
Ness Sandoval researches demography and inequality in American cities at St. Louis University.

The U.S. Census Bureau stopped collecting survey responses a month ago, after a year filled with multiple disruptions to the count, including the coronavirus pandemic and federal lawsuits.

In the coming months, the bureau will begin to release data from the national headcount, the implications of which are sweeping.

“If we don’t have an accurate census, some communities will lose power politically and some communities will be overrepresented,” said Ness Sandoval, who researches demography and sociology at St. Louis University.

Census data helps determine how the federal government distributes more than $1.5 trillion to states, cities and other communities every year. Congressional redistricting, which happens once a decade, is also tied to the results of the census.

The results contain granular information, like income, educational attainment and many other points, about communities.

Sandoval uses these data sets from the census, along with ones from other sources, to map and explore the relationship among quality of life, social inequality and justice in the St. Louis region.

“As a demographer I look 20-30 years down the road,” he said. “My research is: ‘What’s going to happen to the state in 2040, 2050.’”

St. Louis Public Radio’s Eric Schmid spoke with Sandoval about what he’s expecting in the 2020 census results.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

Eric Schmid: Can you explain some of the consequences of census data? Some of the other ways that it’s used or applies as it relates to the next 10 years?

Ness Sandoval: There’s a social consequence of not truly understanding how fast demographic transitions are happening. We know they’re happening. For Missouri, the long-term impacts are not for 2030 but 2040. If we don’t really understand our population is not growing as fast, we may not feel this urgency to make Missouri a more inclusive state.

You want to get the best possible count. So we can get an accurate pulse of what’s happening in the state and what’s happening in cities, whether they’re large or small.

Schmid: As it relates to the St. Louis region, including the Metro East, is there anything that you’ll be looking for when these numbers are released? Any trends or specifics that you’re curious about?

Sandoval: One trend I’m going to be looking at is what’s happening to the African American population for the region. What we started to detect in the American Community Survey was an out migration of African American residents from the region.

The second trend has to do with the city of St. Louis, and there’s a paradox in the city. It’s losing families, but at the same time there is a tremendous amount of economic investment happening or planned to happen in the central corridor of the city. We’re starting to see those who are at the margins economically leaving or can’t afford to live in the city anymore and young rich people moving in.

Schmid: Is there anything that you can immediately draw from some of the self-response rate maps of our region that show communities having higher or lower percentages that they self-responded to the census?

Sandoval: We’ll see that there is a very large cluster of census tracts that have the lowest response rates for the region. If I were to overlay that with a map of the social vulnerability index, it would almost be a perfect correlation.

We’re going to see there’s an undercount when we look at these areas, because of a concentration of disadvantage. We see this in a lot of large cities, and we know this is not random throughout a metropolitan region. They’re statistically clustered in parts of the city that have historical patterns of discrimination. This is not a surprise to me.

Schmid: Given this, and the other disruptions to the census, like the possibility of a citizenship question and the pandemic, what possible limitations do you see in this data before it’s even released?

Sandoval: That’s a hard question for me to answer. There are always limitations to these data sets.

Any type of data the bureau provides will be anonymous. As a demographer I would like as much information as I can get from the census. There will be certain types of information that will not be available because of confidentiality concerns.

Schmid: With that in mind, how do you think about working with census data as it comes out? How will it fold into the other ways you look at the St. Louis region?

Sandoval: We have to be smart users and triangulate our data now. We will continue to use the American Community Survey, also the current population survey, birth certificates, death certificates. All of these surveys have pros and cons.

The census is a very important data set, but it’s not the only data set we can rely on. We have to be smart consumers in making sure that we incorporate other data sets out there to help fill in the picture that may not be complete because of the gaps in the 2020 census.

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.