Skip Navigation

How the census gives Wise County a break

Roanoke Times

Published: January 30, 2005

The Roanoke Times
January 30, 2005

How the census gives Wise County a break
By Christopher Muller

Anticipating both the recent birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. and the upcoming African American History Month, the U.S. Census Bureau recently released a set of statistics updating its 2000 decennial count.

Among the highlighted figures were African American rates of higher education, service in the military, marriage, home ownership, income and poverty and residence in central cities of metropolitan areas.

Not included on this list, however, was a set of findings showing the existence of burgeoning black communities across the country in traditionally white rural regions.

Yet as any good social scientist will tell you, unexamined population statistics can be misleading. A closer look at the data shows that the growing population figures in these regions do not necessarily connote increasing rural diversity. This is because the “residents” who constitute much of the reported rural population growth are locked up in prison.

Take Wise County. Between the 1990 and 2000 census counts, the black population of the county more than tripled, giving the illusion of a rapidly growing community. Yet 71 percent of Wise’s black population is behind bars. The real force behind these rising figures lies in two maximum-security prisons built in the county between 1998 and 1999.

When the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of prison communities, those communities stand to gain from federal and state funds based on population and increased representational power, while the urban communities from which many incarcerated people come suffer an economic and political loss.

Harsh drug laws, mandatory sentencing and discriminatory policing already visit an injustice on urban communities of color, whose residents are consequently overrepresented in U.S. prisons. And as the nation’s prison population and rural prison construction increase, the bureau’s historically benign policy will only exacerbate these existing inequities.

A recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School details the effects of this policy in Virginia.

For a brief period before the 2000 census, for example, prison construction in rural Sussex County made it the fastest-growing county in the nation, despite the fact that its nonprison population declined between the 1990 and 2000 census counts. The population gain due to the inclusion of the new facilities earned Sussex about $121,000 in additional funds for public education alone.

By contrast, Henrico County, which hosts no prisons but is home to many residents sent away to them, lost about $293,000 of similar education funds. Anchored to the communities from which they are effectively drawn, dollars like these could be used to provide job training and drug treatment programs to help formerly incarcerated people return20to society and keep others from entering the system in the first place.

Some towns across the country – like Florence, Ariz., which expanded its borders to envelop recently constructed nearby prisons and paid the Census Bureau for special recounts – deliberately use this counting method to their political and fiscal advantage.

Regardless of the intent, however, the current counting policy in effect aids a system whose historical analog is the three-fifths compromise of 1787. In both cases, a constituency bolsters its political influence with body counts of the disenfranchised.

Recently, former Census Bureau Director Kenneth Prewitt posed a simple answer to this growing problem:

“Counting people in prison as residents of their home communities offers a more accurate picture of the size, demographics and needs of our nation’s communities, and will lead to more informed policies and a more just distribution of public funds.”

Applying the residency rules in this way is nothing new to the bureau. It counts other temporarily absent populations, like military and federal employees stationed abroad, as residents of their home states, and counts boarding school students as residents of their parents’ address.

As the bureau is currently discussing how to change its residency rules for the 2010 census, now is the time for it to right this wrong. It should test and adopt a new approach to counting people in prison – one that gives a clearer picture of communities and needs across the country, and produces a fairer distribution of funds and political power.

Christopher Muller is a research associate at the Brennan Center.