What To Do about the Census

July 21, 1991

Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher was wrong to stick with the 1990 decennial census head count. He should have gone with the statistical adjustment. The clear professional consensus, which includes Census Bureau Director Barbara Bryant, is that the adjustment is better.

The difference between the two is not insignificant. The adjustment is about 5 million people higher than the count. Nor is the difference inconsequential. An estimated $59 billion a year in federal aid to states and localities is based on official population statistics. Baltimore, whose population was 36,000 people higher the adjustment than in the count, could lose as much as $40 million in the rest of the decade. The rest of the state could lose more, perhaps $60 million.

Mr. Mosbacher agreed the head count understated the population. He justified his stand by saying that while adjustment would be more accurate for places above 100,000 population, in some cases it would be less accurate for small entities. True, but as Ms. Bryant said, denying that 5 million Americans exist is a much greater inaccuracy.

Some mayors and governors are suing to make the adjustment official. We think we have a better idea. Leave the count official for purposes of apportioning representation among the states, but use the statistical adjustment for federal aid formulas and for redistricting within states.

State Sen. John Pica of Baltimore has asked the state's attorney general if the latter would be legal here. We know of no statutory or constitutional requirements that the head count be the basis for congressional or legislative redistricting. Several Supreme Court decisions support the idea that states may rely on statistical data other than the decennial census. All the states have to do is prove that other figures are better. It would be easy to prove the adjusted 1990 data is more accurate than the count, given the weight of professional opinion and Mr. Mosbacher's own admission.

Congress has broad authority on population-based federal aid programs. It is not bound by the decennial census. In fact, some population-based federal aid programs now use the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, which is a monthly updating of the census, to determine who gets how much. Since the individuals and entities that are most hurt by aid formulas based on the head count tend to be Democratic, a Democratic Congress would have politics as well as right on its side.

California Democrats have asked Secretary Mosbacher for detailed adjustment figures. So has Rep. Thomas Sawyer, D-Ohio, chairman of the House subcommittee on census and population. The secretary has so far refused to provide them. He's wrong about that, too. As Representative Sawyer said, "The American people paid for that adjustment." The people have the right to see it and, if they choose, to use it.

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