The Elusive 300 Million Milestone


The Census Bureau may have picked Oct. 17 as the day the U.S. hits 300 million citizens, but it may be off by months or even a year or more

It's a perfect made-for-the-media event.

Supposedly, at precisely 7:46 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Oct. 17, the U.S. population will hit 300 million on the dot. In some hospital or at some border crossing, it's said, a squalling baby or a proud immigrant will at that very moment bring the U.S. to the magic number. A lucky somebody may even become the next Robert Ken Woo Jr., the Atlanta lawyer whom Life magazine named No. 200 million on Nov. 20, 1967.

Well, sorry, but I'm not buying it. I hate to be a party pooper at such a joyous moment, but the chance that 7:46 is the actual "300 million moment" is infinitesimally small. The timing could be wrong by not just minutes or hours but weeks, months, possibly even a year or more.

In 2000, the Census Bureau's population count came in at 281.4 million, which was fully 6.9 million more than the bureau's own estimate. If population estimates are as wrong in this decade as they were in the last one, then by my calculation the U.S. actually hit 300 million back around May of 2005.

THAT MAGIC MOMENT

To be fair, Census is probably doing a better estimating job this decade. For one thing, since 2000 the bureau has improved its technique for measuring immigration. It's using a new monthly survey called the American Community Survey that gathers information that used to be collected in the infamous decennial "long form."

So let's be generous and say that the population count this time could be off by plus or minus 500,000 people. That means the magic moment could be anytime between this past August and this coming December.

The Census Bureau is the first to admit that its famous Population Clock could be running fast or slow. "Nobody in Suitland [the Maryland headquarters of the bureau] believes it's down to the minute or anywhere close," says Howard Hogan, the bureau's associate director for demographic programs.

SLEEPING LATE

On the good side, the hoopla around 300 million gives demographers and their work a rare moment in the spotlight. "We kind of joke here around the office that at least for some time people will know what the population of the U.S. is," says Carl Haub, senior demographer at the Population Reference Bureau in Washington. He says he has seen estimates by members of the general public "as low as 2 million and as high as a billion."

So, sure, the Population Clock serves its purpose. Still, you won't catch me hanging around the maternity ward with the other reporters at 7:46 a.m., hoping to grab a sound bite from Lucky 300,000,000. Harrumph.

Coy is BusinessWeek's Economics Editor.

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