WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Census Bureau, under fire from Congress for the high cost and inaccuracy of the 1990 count, is contemplating some radical changes in the next tabulation.
The planning is spurred by lawmakers' threats to reduce the census in the year 2000 to a simple population count, eliminating the data on housing, education, transportation and employment that has been used extensively by city planners, telemarketers, academics and others.
In the past, such information has been collected from one of every six households on a census "long form." In 1990, that form asked 99 questions and required 45 minutes to fill out. But lawmakers are increasingly unhappy with the forms, arguing that they burden citizens and mostly benefit commercial users hitching a free ride on government figures.
In response, Census Bureau officials are trying to find ways to preserve the data. Their leading proposal calls for gathering it in large-scale surveys conducted continuously throughout the decade.
The officials say the new surveys -- which would count such things as the number of people owning and renting homes and how they travel to and from work -- would be much more timely and just as accurate. However, statistical breakdowns on neighborhoods and small towns may not be provided if Congress chooses to cut costs, the officials say.
Under the proposal, a short form still would be mailed in the year 2000 to gauge the number of people in a household and their age, sex, race and other personal characteristics. That would meet the constitutional requirement of taking a census every 10 years to determine the reapportionment of seats in the House. It also would comply with various federal laws requiring a decennial count to allocate federal funds to states and localities.
"We are working on a reinvention of the census," said Susan Miskura, who is heading research into changing the methods of many decades.
Census officials are discussing their proposals with leaders of key House and Senate committees. Time is short because the Census Bureau wants to conduct trials in 1995 in preparation for the 2000 census. A panel of the National Academy of Sciences also has urged that the proposed large-scale surveys on housing, transportation and other subjects be started well before 2000.
Lawmakers have complained that the $2.6 billion cost of the 1990 census was more than double the 1980 figure and produced a less accurate count. As in prior censuses, the bureau acknowledged significant under-counts of blacks and Latinos, probably depriving many cities of millions of dollars in federal funds.
Rep. Neal Smith, D-Iowa, chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Census Bureau, and Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., the panel's ranking Republican, are "both unhappy with the bureau and want to see fundamental changes" in the 2000 census, an aide said.
Their subcommittee fired a shot across the bureau's bow by lopping $15 million from its $230 million budget request for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. Much of the sum may be restored in a Senate-House conference, "but we think the bureau got the message," the aide said.
"We need to get back to the basics," said Mr. Rogers. "Unfortunately, Congress and special interest groups have changed the decennial census from simple enumeration into a 19-page test that many Americans refuse to fill out.
"Instead of focusing on the number of people who live in a dwelling," he continued, "the 1990 census resembled a document that direct-mail companies use to develop customer profiles."
One problem with any alternative to the traditional long form is that it could wind up costing more. Officials say that estimates on various proposals are still being made.
Complicating the drive for change is the lack of strong political leadership at the Census Bureau. The Clinton administration has spent months trying to find a new director.