Census flap Head count: Court ruling renews concerns about population undercount in 2000 survey.

September 06, 1998

THE CENSUS that takes place every 10 years has evolved into one of those issues that stirs passions. That is because the census touches on so many matters, ranging from serious to momentous. It influences how government dollars will be spent, determines the number of seats each state will have in Congress, and, according to a recent report, highlights the steady, shifting demographics of this region.

The Bureau of the Census acknowledges it has not counted every head in the past. In 1970, the estimated undercount for African Americans was 6.5 percent; the latest census, 1990, did not count an estimated 8 million people and miscounted another 4 million.

After the 1980 count, the bureau fought off lawsuits to compensate for the undercount.

For the 2000 census, the bureau wants to use a statistical technique called sampling: 90 percent of households in every census tract will be counted; a "sample" will be used to estimate the makeup of the other 10 percent.

Republicans have feared for years that adding numbers to the count would benefit Democrats, since good numbers of those undercounted are minorities, immigrants, the young, the poor and homeless who would, presumably, vote Democratic. This scenario ignores recent Republican gains among many in those groups.

Republicans sued to block implementation of sampling. An appeals court agreed. Ultimately, the Supreme Court must decide. Meanwhile, Republicans have held up a spending bill because it contains money for the census sample.

Some demographic experts have proposed a reasonable solution: establish a permanent, nonpartisan body to run the census, much like other independent agencies, such as the Federal Reserve Board and Congressional Budget Office. That would take the politics out of this 10-year tracking effort and put the emphasis where it belongs -- getting the most accurate count possible.

Pub Date: 9/06/98

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