Counting all Americans Census undercount: Supreme Court sees no mandate for adjusting 1990 count.

March 24, 1996

THE CONSTITUTION requires the federal government to conduct a census every 10 years. But is the government required to correct an undercount? A unanimous Supreme Court last week said the government can choose the census method and has no obligation to undertake a recount.

The decision disappointed big-city mayors, since the disputed numbers largely involve minority populations in urban areas. It is generally acknowledged that the 1990 census missed as much as 2 percent of the country's population, or about 4 million people. The uncounted people were disproportionately minorities.

In Baltimore, officials believe that the 1990 count putting the city's population at 736,000 actually missed about 5 percent of the city's people, or some 38,000 to 42,000 residents. The undercount becomes political because federal aid is determined by population, and if city officials are correct in their estimates, Baltimore could potentially reap tens of millions of dollars more in federal assistance.

The court did not dispute evidence that the straightforward nose-count method used in 1990 is inadequate for counting people in a country as large and mobile as this one. But the issue was not whether that method was adequate but the narrower question of whether the Census Bureau had the authority to choose which method it would use. Fortunately for Baltimore and other cities, the bureau has already announced that in the census for the year 2000, it would try to count only 90 percent of the population and make use of statistical sampling methods to calculate the rest.

Although that method is being adopted in part to save money, it should also help to produce a fairer count. This issue inevitably becomes partisan, since the uncounted people, usually poor, urban and minority, are generally considered part of the Democratic constituency. But as more big cities elect Republican mayors, as both New York and Los Angeles have done, the partisan aspects begin to blur.

Moreover, as state treasuries find themselves strained to the limit, it serves everyone's interest for urban areas, the economic engines for many states, to get their fair share of federal aid. The court's decision was a disappointment for Baltimore and other cities, but it is not the last word on this issue. In the long run, Congress and the executive branch will have to ensure that cities get their fair share.

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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