Census 2000 is math problem of the decade As fight over method goes on, city officials trying to ensure full count

July 07, 1998|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The count is coming.

And with less than 21 months before it starts, city planners gearing up for Census 2000 are finding it's not as simple as counting heads.

In fact, enumerating urban dwellers is one of the most complex challenges involved in the national census, which the Constitution requires every 10 years. "Most big cities have an undercount," said Richard Krummerich, an aide to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "We have a big stake in this."

City planners are taking steps to avoid missing residents. Throughout the summer, planning department veteran Gloria Griffin is combing through postal records to create a list of current Baltimore addresses.

"We want to make sure Baltimore gets the best count it can get," said Griffin, who has done the drill before. "No more than we deserve, just fairness."

The list will form the backbone of the U.S. Census Bureau fieldwork in the city. Questionnaires will be mailed to every household, asking how many men, women and children live under each roof as of April 1, 2000.

Those who fail to return the census may be visited by a government field worker. The Census Bureau, working in conjunction with the city, plans to open two offices in Baltimore and hire as many as 600 "enumerators" to visit thousands of people who might otherwise be missed.

Federal funds at stake

Charles Graves, city planning director, emphasized that political representation in Congress is one reason for responding to census takers. Federal funding for social and urban programs, which is determined by the census information gathered every decade, is another. "The census is a very important tool to every facet of life," Graves said.

In the 1990 census, Baltimore officially numbered 736,014 inhabitants. Graves said he expects the population in 2000 to be slightly less than 700,000.

However, a conflict over how people will be counted is raging in Washington, leaving the city's strategy for counting everyone -- especially renters, the homeless and traditionally under-counted minorities -- in limbo.

Fight over method

The question is whether the census should be done by a head count -- as Republicans in Congress want -- or with a statistical sampling method favored by President Clinton and congressional Democrats. House Republicans have filed suit to challenge the use of sampling in the national census. (The Constitution directs an "actual enumeration" in a manner and method decided by Congress.)

The 1990 census, the most expensive ever, relied solely on the head-count method. The undercount, estimated at about 4 million people, is believed to have missed mostly minorities. Young black males were the most undercounted group in that census.

Baltimore officials prefer the sampling method, which estimates

the uncounted numbers once 90 percent of those on the address list are accounted for.

The Census Bureau plans to use the sampling method to help achieve "the most accurate and most efficient census in terms of cost," said Fernando E. Armstrong, the bureau's regional director in Philadelphia.

Sampling advocates suggest it could save millions of dollars and deliver a better result. The 1990 census cost more than $2 billion, and the 2000 census is likely to be more than $4 billion if sampling is used, and could be closer to $5 billion if a head count is used, experts say.

The delay in deciding which method to use alarms some experts, including Brookings Institution scholar Charles L. Schultze, who warns that in a tight labor market, time is running out for hiring people to go door-to-door.

"Running a census is a massive operation," said Schultze. Politics aside, he added, "the substance clearly comes down in favor of doing the sampling."

Ultimately, the matter may go to the Supreme Court if Congress and the Clinton administration cannot agree.

City reaching out

City officials are continuing preparations, spreading the word about the census to community groups. "We are involving stakeholders such as churches and schools," Armstrong said.

"Newspapers, radio, community associations, you name it," said Griffin, the planning official.

Later this year, she said, the mayor will appoint "someone who has the respect and ear of those we're trying to count" to head a Complete Count Committee. In 1990, the city committee was chaired by former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell.

In large northeastern cities, Armstrong said, paid advertisements will be used for the first time to raise awareness among minority and low-income residents, who are more likely to be missed by mailings and door-to-door visits.

"They [census advertisements] will be tailored to different populations: Latino, African-American and Asian-American," said Armstrong.

Griffin said census officials also plan to use new techniques to count the population that is perhaps the easiest to overlook -- the city's homeless.

The 2000 method of counting Baltimore's homeless will change significantly from 1990's one-night visit to city shelters and streets. It will be a more detailed study of those using homeless services.

Privacy concerns are paramount for some who distrust the government, but census officials say records will be confidential and will not be used against individuals in cases of illegal immigration.

Krummerich, the mayoral aide, noted that the task was much simpler for the nation's first census taker, then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. He used 600 marshals on horseback -- but also mathematical estimates -- in 1790, when the population was almost 4 million.

Pub Date: 7/07/98

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