The Consensus Is Census Is Flawed

Times Staff Writers

Hold off on the community celebration. That popping noise coming out of Lakewood isn’t from champagne bottles being joyfully opened to celebrate that the city is the fastest-growing place in Los Angeles County.

It’s the sound of the locals poking holes in a new federal census report that contends the bedroom community grew by a whopping 11% between 2000 and 2005.

Or maybe Lakewood actually shrank by nearly 4%. Census officials can’t decide.

That kind of confusion is leading to head scratching at city halls across California as local leaders study a first-ever American Community Survey of medium-sized cities conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. The survey is supposed to offer a mid-decade snapshot of population levels in places with 65,000 or more residents.


The traditional once-a-decade census targets about one household out of every six addresses. This time around questionnaires were mailed to about one out of every 40 addresses in medium-sized cities.

Trouble is, the sample was so narrow that its final figures come with a margin of error so wide that some are finding the tally useless.

The margin of error for the 114 California cities in the survey varied from 1.4% in Los Angeles to nearly 20% in Indio, depending on the number of households queried.

The population change in more than half of those cities fell within the margin of error, making it impossible to say with certainty whether they had grown or shrunk since the 2000 census, although the Census Bureau estimated that eight of 10 grew.


In Upland, the Census Bureau found the population jumped from 67,840 to 74,420. But the margin of error was 8,248 residents, so it’s possible Upland lost residents. Costa Mesa recorded a small dip in population to 105,333, officials found, but it had a margin of error of nearly 11,000 residents.

In Lakewood, the new count of household residents totaled 88,253, up from 79,228 in 2000.

But factoring in the margin of error, federal officials acknowledged that the city might have as many as 100,119 residents. On the other hand, it might have shrunk to 76,387 people.

“My jaw dropped when I saw those figures,” said D.J. Waldie, Lakewood’s public information officer and author of a history of the city.

“I walked into the boss and said you can drive a very large truck through a margin of error this size. This is the fuzziest of math. It’s so clouded it’s cracked.”

Lakewood Chamber of Commerce President John Kelsell said he’s certain his town, formed in the post-World War II development boom, is not shrinking. But it’s not wildly growing, either.

“Lakewood pretty much hit its heyday in the 1950s” when it had its initial growth spurt, he said.

The state Department of Finance, which also keeps tabs on the size of California’s cities, has pegged Lakewood’s current population at 83,647. That state estimate is consistent with local experts’ calculated occupancy rate of dwellings in the mostly single-family community.


In nearby South Gate, officials said they doubt if the new census figures will be of much use in calculating the population either today or tomorrow.

According to the feds, South Gate’s population has jumped nearly 7.5% over the last five years. Or it could have leaped by 23%. Or it could have decreased by nearly 8%.

So instead of the federal estimate of 103,547 (or a high estimate of 118,416 or a low estimate of 88,678) leaders of the 83-year-old municipality are sticking with the Department of Finance’s estimate of 102,165.

“Looking at building activity and water department customers, we can definitely say that 88,678 is too low,” said Bryan Cook, an assistant to South Gate’s city manager. “And 118,416 appears a bit high.”

Simi Valley City Manager Mike Sedell agreed. The new census report says his Ventura County community could have grown 5.4% this decade. On the other hand, it could have shrunk by 4%.

“We’re not sure how small we are anymore,” Sedell joked. “As a manager I tend to look for the story that the numbers tell me. In this case the numbers give me a fairy tale.”

The census concluded that Simi Valley increased in population from 110,738 in 2000 to 116,722 last year. But factoring in the survey’s margin of error, the population could also either be as high as 127,082. Or as low as 106,362.

Such a wide margin causes problems for municipal planners wrestling with housing and city infrastructure needs and could affect governmental grants and allocations that are made on the basis of population, Sedell said.


Federal census officials, meantime, stressed that the American Community Survey is a work in progress that will become cleaner each year.

Accuracy will improve and the margin of error will decrease as year-to-year survey data is combined, said Ken Bryson, senior program analyst for the survey.

Additional findings from last year’s pioneering survey continue to be rolled out by Washington officials. And they pledged that taxpayers will get their money’s worth from the information.

“The survey costs last year were $170 million, plus or minus a dollar and a half,” quipped Bryson.

Say what?

“You wanted a margin of error, right?”

Times data analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.



Soft numbers

Two cities with population changes that are well within the American Community Survey’s margin of error:

Growing (maybe)


- 2000 household population: 87,333

- 2005 estimate: 97,946

- Margin of error: 12,325 (12.6%)

Shrinking (maybe)

El Monte

- 2000 household population: 114,986

- 2005 estimate: 108,913

- Margin of error: 13,663 (12.6%)


Source: Census Bureau



Gaining or losing?

The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey estimates household population as of 2005, but its large margins of error make it impossible to determine whether some cities are gaining or losing. For example, Alhambra is counted as a shrinking city, but it could also be growing.

Alhambra population survey: 11% margin of error

2000 census: 84,083

2005 survey

- Possible minimum: 67,929

- 2005 survey: 76,309

- Possible maximum: 84,689

Some cities supposed to have lost population

*--* Margin Possible 2000 2005 of error Population City census survey (+/-) Range: Maximum Minimum Buena Park 77,411 76,062 10.7% 84,180 67,944 Costa Mesa 105,510 105,333 10.2 116,078 94,588 Pasadena 130,340 129,400 7.1 138,541 120,259 Whittier 81,488 80,554 10.1 88,664 72,444


Some cities supposed to have gained population

*--* Margin Possible 2000 2005 of error Population City census survey (+/-) Range: Maximum Minimum Anaheim 323,532 329,483 5.6% 347,960 311,006

El Cajon 92,335 92,507 14.3 105,693 79,321

Glendale 192,175 194,620 6.5 207,195 182,045

Lakewood 79,228 88,253 13.4 100,119 76,387

Long Beach 451,174 463,956 4.1 482,999 444,913


Source: Census Bureau. Graphics reporting by Sandra Poindexter