Bureau drafting major overhaul for 2000 census

May 16, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Facing soaring costs and evidence that the 1990 census was in some ways the least accurate in decades, the Census Bureau is planning wholesale changes in how it will collect data in the year 2000 and beyond.

One change that is expected to be adopted, census officials say, is the use of sophisticated estimates based on surveys to supplement the actual counting -- a volatile issue that was the center of a partisan battle in the last census.

The bureau is also considering scrapping the long-form survey that has been used once a decade to gather information as varied as household incomes and how many telephones a particular residence has.

In its place, the bureau plans extensive monthly surveys conducted over an entire decade, providing a more timely flow of data.

To increase the percentage of households that mail back the census form -- which hit a record low of 65 percent in 1990 -- the bureau is also considering new steps such as dispensing census forms at post offices and other places and permitting people to respond by telephone to a toll-free 800 number.

The extent of the changes -- driven by steeply rising costs and the increasing diversity of the population -- has yet to be determined. In addition, Congress may decide to limit the changes or keep things as they are. The Census Bureau will test many of the ideas next year in New Haven, Conn.; Paterson, N.J.; Oakland, Calif.; and six rural Louisiana parishes.

"These would be tremendous changes from the way we are doing things now," said Robert Tortora, the bureau's associate director for statistics, methodology and standards, who is in charge of redesigning the census.

Perhaps the most revolutionary change envisioned is the proposal to extrapolate a final tally from samples of those who are counted and those who do not return the census questionnaires.

In 1990, in an expensive endeavor, field workers called enumerators conducted up to six visits to each of nearly 35 million households that had not returned the forms, to determine how many people lived there.

In the next census, visits would be made to only a percentage of these housing units and Census Bureau statisticians would extrapolate from this sample the total number of people in all nonresponding households.

To determine how many people were counted and how many were missed, the Census Bureau also plans to send enumerators to randomly selected neighborhoods where they will check all households, regardless of whether they mailed back the census forms.

The bureau used this procedure in 1990, but it did so after an actual enumeration had been made. In 2000, the bureau plans to conduct this survey while the count is taking place and to incorporate the information derived from the sampling into the final tally.

These changes would ensure that statistical sampling methods are used to get a final tally: The bureau would not have a choice after the tally, as it did in 1991, between a full traditional count and an adjustment.

While some social scientists say that sampling gives a more accurate rendering than attempts at actual nose-counting, the changes would probably produce a court challenge.

Census officials admit that the last census missed urban and rural residents and minorities in disproportionate numbers.

Democrats and several cities filed suit to force the Bush administration to adjust the numbers and compensate for an undercount, which they said cost them federal benefits and hurt them in the redrawing of legislative districts. A federal judge ruled that such an adjustment would be constitutional but refused to order the Bush administration to use the adjusted figures.

Required by the Constitution to give a national nose-count, the ,, Census Bureau has over the years become a source of vital information to politicians, government planners, demographers, advocacy groups and business executives.

The enumeration is used to apportion seats in the House of Representatives and state legislatures. The demographic information on the long form is used to plan marketing campaigns, allocate federal funds, select areas for fund-raising drives and conduct demographic research.

Four years ago, the census cost $2.6 billion over a 10-year-old cycle, double the cost of the 1980 enumeration. The Census Bureau predicts that, if it does not change its methods, the cost for the 2000 census would more than double.

Even as costs have mounted, the accuracy of the census has waned. The General Accounting Office, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, says that the 1990 census missed nearly 10 million people and that 4.4 million were counted twice.

Moreover, the Census Bureau says, the percentage of blacks missed was six times greater than the percentage of whites, the largest difference since 1940.

The Census Bureau has not changed its data-collection methods since 1960, when it began mailing out forms instead of conducting the count door-to-door. Since 1960, if their visits to households that failed to return the questionnaires still failed to get a response, the enumerators have asked neighbors, landlords and even passers-by if they knew anything about the people who might live in the house or apartment.

Such a procedure, experts say, increases the chances of getting inaccurate information.

At the same time, they say, the reliability of mailed questionnaires has diminished because there are more immigrants who have a limited command of English and more people who distrust government and are less likely to return the forms.

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