Monday 13 March 2023

A Life that Counted

In my career in science teaching and research, especially in its last eight years at The Institute, I tore a lot of hair at the idea that grrls don't or can't count. Not entirely, but in large measure, if our students had clocked better grades in Leaving Cert maths, they wouldn't have been sojourning 4 years of their lives at a Regional Technical College; but would have gone to a University. No amount of rebranding the letterhead: RTC >> Institute of Technology >> Technological University addressed the basic issue. On my watch, basic innumeracy was as likely in lads as lasses; but it took some effort to restore their confidence after so much labelling and learned helplessness in school. Nevertheless I was always looking for role models for Women in Science, because the Patriarchy-fu is strong historically, and lamentably, even in the 21stC. I think I've found another.

Barbara Everitt Bryant has died, in the fullness of her years (b. 1926), surrounded by her family, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She was appointed to head the US Bureau of Census in 1990, the first woman to do so. Her career was typical of smart young middle-class US women coming to adulthood after WWII. Of course she should go to college and read Physics there if she had the aptitude and interest. She was literate as well as numerate and after graduating helped edit Chemical Engineering in NYC. But her husband's career took precedence and she took an academic sabbatical to raise 3 kids. Only then did she go back to college, securing an MA and PhD, and going to work as a market researcher for a Republican polling and think tank group called Market Opinion Research. In 1990, President Bush Sr. saw her a safe pair of GOP hands to head the Census Bureau.

However, it was on her watch that the issue of undercounting [minorities] really gained legs. In an ideal world, every person in the State on a certain date should be contacted and useful information about each one recorded. This is essential for planning. The number of newborns in 1990 can inform budget allocations for secondary school places in 2001/2. If nobody knows how many people are 60-65, then there won't be sufficient hospital beds in 2010 or coffins in 2015. But, contra the Declaration of Independence all men are not created equal: some groups are going to need more care and attention and consume more resources from the community / state. If you miss these indigents then it's going to cost more later because the unplanned is always over-budget. In Ireland, on Census night, a great effort is made to find all the people who don't have an address to which the CSO can post a Census Form . . . because they are sleeping under bridges.

In 1989, post-hoc recounts of selected census tracts in the US suggested that 4 million people were invisible to The State: an under-count of 1.6%. But Blacks were under-counted by 4.4% and children by 2x. Dr. Bryant agreed with her Census wonks that something should be done about the discrepancy rather than sweeping these dispossessed under the carpet of policy. Thereafter the Census Bureau published adjusted (statistical best guess) figures for the population and its sub-categories. This caused a perfect storm of indignation and law-suits because knowing the truth was going to mean extra work and awkward questions for The Man. On her watch, she also got the Census takers to give up the old pencils for taking narrative responses from censusees. A properly designed computer codable questionnaire captured the vast majority of the useful information and didn't need transcription services afterwards. 

Everyone agrees that Barbara Bryant did The States some service.

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