Counting on the census in Alaska

SUN JOURNAL

Accuracy: The state, which depends heavily on federal aid, is hoping for a more complete survey than the one in 1990 so it gets its fair share.

January 29, 2000|By Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy,LOS ANGELES TIMES

UNALAKLEET, Alaska -- Stanton Katchatag was first, and after him come 274 million other Americans.

"Including," says Henry Ivanoff, the mayor of this remote, ice-shrouded fishing village on the Bering Strait, "the president and vice president, including the governors of the Union, including Michael Jordan."

America's 10-year appointment with history, the 2000 Census, began last week -- just after sunup Thursday, at 11 a.m. -- with an 82-year-old Eskimo whose brood of seven children, 21 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren could occupy an entire chapter in the census rolls.

Katchatag and his neighbors had to be grabbed early. By the official April 1 census day, most of them will be out at fishing camps dozens of miles up the Unalakleet River, hauling in spring chinook salmon and trout.

Going the extra mile

The arrival of 10 census team leaders, five regional managers and the Census Bureau director, Kenneth Prewitt, in a village 400 miles northwest of Anchorage is an indication of the extraordinary lengths to which the federal government is prepared to go to ensure that the population count tracks down every American.

"It matters how well we count each other, because a census is intended to be, has to be, completely inclusive. It only works if it leaves no one out," Prewitt says.

The bureau predicts that the nation's population will more than double in the next century, reaching 571 million in 2100. And for the first time, fewer than half of those in the United States will be non-Latino whites. The 2000 count, officials say, will track more foreign-born residents than at any time in more than 100 years.

The march into rural Alaska is part of a large-scale multicultural and multilingual outreach campaign that will help make this the costliest census -- $6.8 billion. At its peak, the overall census work force will reach 860,000. Some of the budget will go to buying a 30-second promotional spot during the Super Bowl. A lot more will go to paying the census counters $18.75 an hour to canvass hard-to-reach spots.

Census officials are determined to avoid the pitfalls of the 1990 count, which missed an estimated 8.4 million people, counted about 4.4 million others twice and, for the first time, was less accurate than its predecessor.

The results will be fleshed out with statistical sampling that census officials believe will provide the most accurate tally possible. But in response to nationwide political opposition to anything less than a house-to-house count, the bureau is pouring millions of dollars into advertising and billions more into staffing to track down the most recalcitrant of respondents in homes.

At stake is an estimated $180 billion a year in federal funds distributed on the basis of census populations, as well as boundaries of congressional and legislative districts that are apportioned with the aid of census data.

In Alaska, whose 270 rural villages depend heavily on outside aid and whose 104,750 American Indians lost several state legislative seats when the '90 census documented an explosive growth in Alaska's urban centers, officials are seeking a complete count.

The Clinton administration has supported the use of statistical sampling to better reflect native, immigrant and minority communities -- which it says have been undercounted in house-to-house tallies.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that only a straight head count can be used for purposes of redrawing congressional districts. But it left open the question of whether those adjusted figures can be used by individual states to draw legislative districts. Alaska, along with Arizona, passed a law last year banning the use of those adjusted figures -- sparking immediate opposition in native villages such as Unalakleet.

The Alaska Federation of Natives and the Native American Rights Fund have urged the Justice Department to rule that that position is discriminatory under the Voting Rights Act. "Many of our people are totally disenfranchised from the political process," said Julie Kitka, president of the native federation.

A similar debate has played out in Washington, where Congress set aside the statistical sampling issue late last year to allow the count to move ahead. Because adjusting the tally to better reflect immigrants and minorities is likely to favor Democrats in redistricting, Republicans have overwhelmingly opposed it.

Checking things twice

Census officials have agreed to compile two sets of data -- one statistically adjusted, one a straight head count -- and leave it up to the states to decide which to use in drawing legislative boundaries.

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