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Public sector demography

Public sector demography is the use of the demographic framework by practitioners in government offices, usually for providing estimates, forecasts, and segmentations of populations so the government may fairly allocate resources. While academic demography sometimes provides weaker explanatory power and broader intervals to avoid overstating the perfection of a result, we find that public sector demography — as a field of applied demography — often requires giving definite results based on limited resources including often-imperfect information. For example, while an academic demographer may give a confidence interval for a population estimate, a population survey by a government office will normally need to give concrete numbers and leave confidence intervals as secondary material or entirely unpublished. The decisions that go into these concrete numbers are unique to applied demography, but based on the same underlying principles and methodologies of the demographic framework used by all practitioners whether in academic or applied fields. Furthermore, while an academic demographer would perhaps give technically correct but less helpful and very limited results — for many reasons, such as significant changes in city and county boundaries — an applied demographer will need to make serious decisions about how to provide numbers that tactfully tell a coherent story and close in on solid figures. Also, a public sector demographer is expected to maintain a degree of connoisseurship about the regions they study including the people living there, working there, and moving through, as well as the policies, agencies, elected officials, and broader trends shaping their existences — in a word, the sociology of their jurisdiction. Especially with the offices of many public sector demographers funded through commissions from other agencies, an intimate understanding of a region and its sociology allows public sector demographers to consistently achieve results that maintain confidence from many stakeholders.

Drs. Eric Jensen, Cassandra Logan, and Erica Gardner are three practitioners of applied demography in the public sector who answered questions about the demographic framework and applied demography, informed by their years of academic and professional experience. All three practitioners had two things in common: academic backgrounds in sociology; and academic backgrounds in demography. All three worked in fields that use demographic approaches: principles such as looking at populations by age, gender, area, and racial/ethnic background; methodologies such as surveying, weighting, and related statistical methods; and interdisciplinarity such as studying the sociology of immigration and other demographic events, or the politics and policies of the offices using their work. These three practitioners found their own ways of expressing how this manifests in their work, and in their industries more broadly.

Dr. Jensen gave the example of life tables being mentioned in a meeting, and how studying demography allowed him to remember these from his coursework and participate right away in the discussion about them. He also gave the example of seeing annual trends on immigration show the same curve as cohortized results, and that it struck him how elegantly this demonstrated a truism he had learned as a student. These examples reflected his general view that the demographic framework infused all areas of his work, essentially uncoiling over and over again each time he used a principle or a technique from his student years. As Senior Technical Expert for Demographic Analysis at the Census Bureau, he worked in a team that created estimates of population by age, sex, race, and so forth to evaluate the decennial census. His office is tasked with helping to discover wrong estimates in the decennial census, including perhaps the underestimation of some segments. He gave the example of the Census’ inclusion of self-reported race, while birth records only list the race of the mother and father but not the child, and the Demographic Analysis office’s computations to shed light on whether the Census’ estimates of racial composition match what is expected based on birth records. This clearly used the principles, methodologies, and interdisciplinarity (especially around the sociology of how someone might self-report their race) of the demographic framework. Indeed, Dr. Jensen also mentioned that there was a strong relationship between his academic background and his professional background — his thesis and his work are not far apart. Furthermore, Dr. Jensen mentioned that the Demographic Analysis team works on international migration, the area with the biggest uncertainty. This was also a big part of what he studied at Penn State University when completing his doctorate in rural sociology and demography, where he developed a strong background in immigration statistics. He added that the data he has had to use was often not very clean, yet because his work is used to measure the quality, coverage, and bias of the Census, his main constituents have been other managers at the Census Bureau as well as all users of Census data. This mandated a high level of integrity and incisive decision-making. This maximization of explanatory power despite limited resources epitomized the practice of applied demography.

On the other hand, Dr. Logan said that being able to use population statistics in an analysis is the demographic framework in practice. This insight is laconic and devoid of anecdotes (unlike Dr. Jensen’s view) yet still, Dr. Logan spoke volumes. Very early, she rejected the idea of a career in academia, instead seeking out a very applied job, and mentioned the far-reaching components of her managerial work. As she said, one hour she may pore over descriptive statistics and cross-tabs, while another hour she may delve into refunds for unused debit cards purchased as survey incentives. Her role has been broad, so her description of the demographic framework was appropriately short yet encompassing. It was quite different from Dr. Jensen’s philosophical approach, exemplified by his question, “Is demography destiny?” Interestingly, Dr. Logan seemed to have adapted her doctoral studies to better suit her preferences. She took a very applied approach by studying how welfare reform has impacted health insurance coverage of married families with children. Despite being an academic work by nature, it foreshadowed her attentiveness to programs, sociology, and influencing people’s lives. Much of her appreciation for and definition of applied demography was in contradistinction to academic demography. As she mentioned all the aspects of academia she disliked, it became clear that she appreciated applied demography for what it is not as much as for what it is. For example, the unpredictable nature of her daily work as a program manager at the Census Bureau meant there were constant surprises and challenges, in contrast to the more monotonous-seeming classroom-oriented work of an academic. (Dr. Gardner shared much of this perspective as well, described below in more detail.) However, Dr. Logan recognized the firm place of academic development and professional integrity for practitioners to properly conduct methodology and interpretation: she stated that the Census absolutely must be — and recognized for being — a reliable source for all.

Unlike Drs. Jensen and Logan, Dr. Gardner was not working for the Census. Instead, she worked for the State Data Center, which is nonetheless a collaboration between the state of Washington and the federal Census. She mentioned that people trained with the demographic framework have a different perspective and that they think demographically. This may at first seem less incisive than what the practitioners above stated, but she further developed her full-featured response to the question. Compared to Dr. Jensen’s many anecdotes he used to illustrate his view of the demographic framework and applied demography in his everyday work — and Dr. Logan’s focus on projects, practicing, and praxis — there was a different meaning in Dr. Logan’s message about thinking demographically and that demography is a mixture of loving sociology and math, plus that training in this field and how it can be applied is a special type of professionalization. Her team’s calendar includes a product release every few months, and numerous state-level agencies commission her office to include their own questions on the surveys being conducted. Adding questions to a survey is surely not just a one-way dialogue. In addition to receiving questions to include, she must communicate back to querants as a demographic expert and specifically an applied demography expert who can influence the wording and implementation of the most economical and explanatory questions to include on surveys. However, the dialogue does not end there. She must dialogue not just with similarly-ranked management-level personnel and bureaucrats, but also work on ensuring elected officials at city, county, and state levels can access and understand her office’s products. Especially due to working at the more local state level (instead of the federal level), it is clear that her role as an applied demographer is embodied in not just releasing honest, usable, trustworthy products but also in ensuring they are understood and used appropriately — this is very different than academic peer review. (On the other hand, Drs. Jensen and Logan work at the federal level, which must involve less direct ongoing communication with individual cities and counties than Dr. Gardner’s state-level work.) Indeed, the estimates in her products are used to appropriately disburse tax funds, a major and influential role of her work in every Washingtonian’s life. On top of that, she must track changes in the boundaries of cities and counties. Although ideally such information is easily accessible, it can require direct follow-up to ensure the exact GPS coordinates for boundaries are accurate. This speaks to her description, mentioned above, of demography as a mix of sociology and math. Of note, she had a similar position to Dr. Logan about her relationship to academia in general — that she knew she always wanted to work in an applied field — but said it more descriptively when she stated that academics are desirous of reproducing more academics.

These three practitioners are “voices from the field” and their perspectives each embody some of the facets of the demographic framework and applied demography, which was cursorily introduced at the top of this paper. Swanson et al (1996) and Swanson et al (2008) ratify a definition of applied demography and its demographic framework (and contrast it to other demographic fields) with a peer-reviewed paper and a textbook, respectively. Their descriptions encompass what the three practitioners voiced, in essence that applied demographers are faced with clientele who must make present or future decisions based on the demographic results provided by the applied demographers. While academic demographers pursue technical perfection — which when taken to a negative extreme can make them impresarios broadcasting to a small and like-minded audience — the applied demographer must step out and prioritize explanation over technique, when necessary. This same pattern also occurs in applied demography in the public sector, and the practitioners above illustrated this poignantly. Altogether, the practitioners reinforced and illustrated the perspectives put forth in both of Swanson’s releases.


Swanson, David A., et al. “What Is Applied Demography?” Population Research and Policy Review, vol. 15, no. 5/6, 1996, pp. 403–418. JSTOR, Accessed 2 June 2020.

Swanson, David A.. Applied Demography in the 21st Century: Selected Papers from the Biennial Conference on Applied Demography, San Antonio, Texas, January 7-9, 2007. Germany, Springer Netherlands, 2008.