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Missing population data hinder good accounting and fair resource distribution

The Uncounted

Alex Cobham
240 pp.
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In his new book, The Uncounted, Alex Cobham documents how shortcomings of data in two key areas—population and finances—work together to exclude certain groups from exerting political power while simultaneously conveying greater political power to other groups. Cobham, an economist and the chief executive at the Tax Justice Network in the United Kingdom, focuses on the extent to which many marginalized populations are often not counted in official statistics and the extent to which wealthy individuals and families are often able to hide their financial resources, properties, and other holdings from the government to avoid paying taxes on these assets.

Cobham documents a range of situations where people are missed or undercounted in official statistics, from United Nations figures to country surveys. More often than not, the most frequently missed groups are those that are economically and socially marginalized. When such groups are not accounted for, it often leads to reduced political power as well as reduced economic well-being.

Many marginalized groups have relatively high net undercount rates in the U.S. census (1), and areas with high concentrations of these groups often do not receive their fair share of government aid. In addition to those noted by Cobham, there is another group that is regularly undercounted in censuses: young children (24).

These examples support Cobham’s observation that “there may be people and groups at the bottom of distributions (e.g., income) whose ‘uncounting’ adds another level to their marginalization.” He goes on: “Being uncounted is not generally a matter of coincidence, but reflects power: the lack of it, or its excess.”

The political overtones of how power can be used to deliberately undercount marginalized groups was on full display in the buildup to the 2020 U.S. census. The Trump administration, acting through the U.S. Department of Commerce, tried to add a question to the 2020 U.S. census regarding citizenship status, knowing that it would depress participation of populations with large numbers of immigrants. This attempt—which was eventually struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court but was then the subject of an executive order with similar goals—was made despite the objections of the experts at the Census Bureau, all living former Census Bureau directors, and many other statistical experts.

Cobham next turns his attention to uncounted money and the extent to which people can hide their resources from the authorities. Hidden resources not only deprive countries of their fair share of tax revenue, they mask the real extent of economic inequality.

Here, Cobham documents efforts currently under way to make the financial world more transparent. While such efforts are still young, they appear to be having mixed success. He writes, for example, about the shortcomings of the commonly used Gini coefficient to measure income inequality, which is insensitive at higher levels of inequality, and the benefits of the more transparent Palma method, which can easily be translated into a meaningful statement for nonexpert audiences.

Throughout the book, Cobham argues that a lack of good data on population and finances is a major hindrance to good governance. Without good data, he maintains, we have little idea if a policy or program is having a positive or negative impact.

In his “Uncounted Manifesto” at the end of the book, Cobham makes the case for several changes in law and regulations that could help us get a more accurate assessment of populations and resources that currently go uncounted. Here, he highlights the promise of the international standard known as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, set up to make sure multinational corporations are paying their fair share of taxes. Initially lacking in accountability, the initiative has evolved into a metric with “powerful momentum to pursue real transparency.”

Ultimately, The Uncounted provides a good summary and overview of the extent to which official statistics are systematically biased because of uncounted populations and hidden financial resources. The book will provide a good entry point for people interested in the interplay between data, demography, and public policy.

1. W. P. O’Hare, Differential Undercounts in the U.S. Census: Who Is Missed? (Springer, 2019).
2. W. P. O’Hare, The Undercount of Young Children in the
U.S. Decennial Census (Springer, 2015).
3. W. P. O’Hare, Stat. J. IAOS 33, 289 (2017).
4. D. Goodkind, Demography 48, 291 (2011).

About the author

The reviewer is president of O’Hare Data and Demographic Services, LLC, Cape Charles, VA 23310, USA.