Now that the undercount counts

April 15, 1993

Though major cities were undercounted in the 1992 Census and though this undercount surely harmed those cities, a federal judge in New York has ruled that the undercount counts.

It is a puzzling decision. Almost every demographer, including the Census Bureau's, would agree that the adjustment, based on expert statistical analysis and estimate, would have been more accurate than the traditional head count. Judge Joseph McLaughlin, who ruled against the cities Tuesday, said himself that it would have been "wiser" to adjust the official Census figures than to accept the actual head count. He even said that if he were to decide the issue on his own, "I would probably have ordered the adjustment."

But as he read the law, the judge said, the secretary of commerce was empowered to stick with the count, even if it was obviously wrong. The secretary was a Reepublican in 1990, and party affiliation may have been a factor in his decision-making. The losers in the Census argument were mostly Democratic areas. Going with the undercount instead of the accurate adjustment reduces the numbers of members of Congress and of state legislators that are apportioned to cities.

Judge McLaughlin said in his opinion that it was "inevitable" that adjustment rather than actual counting would be used in the next Census in 2000. We hope so. Once we believed that adjustment was too vulnerable to political manipulation to be a good idea. But the lesson of 1990's Census is that actual counting is so much less reliable from a demographic standpoint than estimates based on counting that relying on counting is a form of political manipulation -- abuse -- of reality.

Some critics of adjustment complained that this sort of analysis would have had some errors in 1990, too. Yes, but fewer than the count. And, as former Census Director Barbara Bryant said the ** other day, by 2000 the accuracy of the adjusters will be even better.

There is little that can be done about this unfairness, this time. Apportionment and districting must conform to the official population figures. But one thing that can be done now is to use the more reliable 1990 adjusted data in managing federal and state aid programs that are based on population. A Democratic Congress can and should see to it that undercounted cities are not shortchanged. This would be good governance and good politics.

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