Clinton backs sampling method of census Republicans say approach, which raises count of minorities, is illegal

June 03, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HOUSTON -- President Clinton plunged into the debate over race, politics and the U.S. Census yesterday, urging Congress to permit the use of a new method for counting the population that Democrats say is more accurate but Republicans contend is unconstitutional.

The president, joining forces with other members of his party and Census officials, contended that the 1990 Census missed whole segments of the population, largely members of minority groups, thereby throwing off decisions by government and business on issues from health care to advertising.

Statistical sampling, Clinton said, would include in the count people who might be missed by traditional techniques.

"An inaccurate census distorts our understanding of the needs of our people," Clinton said, before sitting down here with a group of eight community leaders, activists and academics for a discussion intended to promote sampling.

Republicans have filed suit to stop the use of sampling, arguing that it is unconstitutional and designed to help the Democratic Party by including more minorities, many of whom tend to vote Democratic.

Among other things, the census helps determine the way congressional districts are drawn and so could affect which party controls the Congress at the beginning of the next century.

"Whatever the count is, wherever the people are, this is not a political issue," Clinton insisted. "This is an American issue."

His remarks yesterday were his most extensive about sampling and his first comments on the matter since last year, when he promised to make the issue a high priority.

Officials of the Census Bureau have been arguing for many months that statistical sampling would yield a far more accurate estimate of the population than the old-fashioned head-count method, but Clinton has said little on the subject, prompting complaints from some Democrats.

Yesterday's round-table discussion seemed designed to give encouragement to members of his party while putting pressure on Republicans.

The issue of sampling is of such importance that many who have followed it believe it will inevitably be decided in the Supreme Court. Politically, it is explosive.

Many experts believe, for instance, that if the 1990 Census had been adjusted to make up for its acknowledged under-count, California would have gained a congressional seat, while Wisconsin would have lost one.

The new sampling approach advocated by Clinton would still rely on the techniques the Census Bureau has used since 1970, mailing out questionnaires to the population as well as knocking on doors. But instead of trying to count everyone, the bureau proposes to count people in 90 percent of the households in each census tract, a neighborhood of about 1,700 homes.

Bureau statisticians would use those figures to try to determine the number of people in the tract who had not been physically counted. The bureau would check the results by conducting a survey of 750,000 households nationwide and adjusting the total if necessary.

Republicans vehemently object to sampling. They say that it violates the Constitution, which calls for an "actual enumeration" every 10 years, and that it is much too complex to be accurate.

Pub Date: 6/03/98

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