Fixing the problem of Census undercounts Statistical sampling: A sensible way of ensuring more accurate data on Americans in 2000.

October 12, 1998

IT IS NOT a pretty fight, but the outcome will be significant. It is a tale that is a blot on Republicans and the Republic.

Census takers in 1990 failed to count 8.4 million Americans while double-counting another 4.4 million.

They missed 4.4 percent of all African Americans, 3 percent of Latinos, 12.2 percent of Native Americans and 0.7 percent of whites -- mostly poor, homeless, young, recent immigrants or urban dwellers. A study, commissioned by Congress, pointed out that the 2000 census will be worse if the same methodology is used.

That should not be tolerated.

But instead of fixing what's clearly broken, congressional Republicans are engaged in obstructing repair efforts for the most insidious and spurious political reason -- that those minorities who would be counted most likely will turn out to be Democrats.

To insure a more accurate enumeration in 2000, the organization Republicans engaged to do the study, the respected National Academy of Sciences, recommended a method called "statistical sampling" to count the 10 percent of the population remaining after 90 percent has been contacted the old way, by enumerators and questionnaires.

House Republicans went to court against their own solution -- sampling was originally proposed by the Bush administration -- and federal judges ruled in their favor, declaring that the method was unlawful.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case Nov. 30. A speedy, definitive ruling would be helpful, but probably would not end the controversy.

Meanwhile, Republicans are attempting to block funds of the Census Bureau that may be used to begin sampling. President Clinton has threatened, rightly, to veto any such measure.

To deal with the immediate conflict between the Republicans and the White House, Vincent Barabba, former census director, has suggested proceeding with the old method for apportionment purposes in 2000, but use sampling to adjust crucial funding for federal grants to state and local governments.

Another proposal to resolve the issue forever would establish a permanent, nonpartisan agency to run the Census, similar to such independent bodies as the Congressional Budget Office and the Federal Reserve Board.

Both are reasonable and practical suggestions, promoting short-term and long-range solutions to an old problem, hopefully removing the Census from politics forever.

They would allay concern that some Americans have a so-what attitude about those Americans missed by the Census.

Pub Date: 10/12/98

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