Adjusting the Census Count

April 25, 1991

The 1990 census was worse than anybody thought. It was a much worse job of counting than in 1980. There can be no disputing now those who say the official figures must be adjusted.

The Constitution requires an "enumeration" of Americans ever10 years for apportioning seats in the House of Representatives. That language has been taken by Census Bureau officials and most members of Congress to mean that there had to be a head count and only a head count for official purposes.

This consensus view was arrived at even even though almost all experts agreed a head count always fell short, and even though by the 1970s and 1980s it had become possible to use advanced statistical techniques to get an estimate much more accurate than a head count. (And even though the Constitution also seems to allow an estimate by saying that the "enumeration" shall be "made in such manner as [Congress] shall by law direct.")

The importance of knowing how many people in each state had also increased greatly beginning in the 1960s, with the enactment of many federal aid programs based on population and population characteristics. Imprecision today is a multi-billion dollar mistake. Baltimore, for example, lost nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in aid in the past decade because of the 1980 undercount.

The 1990 census was expected to be the most accurate ever. It was the most costly ever and the best planned. But last week, after a post-enumeration survey, Census Bureau officials announced that the 1990 undercount was maybe 2.5 percent short, compared to 1980's 1.4 percent undercount. Over six million Americans were missed by the census.

Not only that, the uncounted six million occurred in such a pattern as to affect the number of representatives due eight states. That is something no experts forecast. The census missed more blacks and Hispanics than whites, which means that areas with large populations of such Americans will be under-represented in congressional districts and in state legislative districts. If Maryland redistricts merely on the basis of the census head count, Baltimore will have less political clout in Washington and in Annapolis than its population entitles it to.

The secretary of Commerce may -- but is expected not to -- agree to adjust the official count on the basis of the survey. We say he is not expected to adjust because not counting blacks and Hispanics is politically beneficial to the Republican Party. Of course, maybe he will surprise everyone. Maybe he will conclude that rejecting the adjusted count will lead to lawsuits by governors, mayors and others and to legislation by the Democratic Congress, the results of which would be more harmful to the Republican Party than a simple adjustment based the work of non-partisan demographers.

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