Census data to affect government, business

Myriad discoveries, small dramas expected

March 04, 2001|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

The most detailed self-portrait in American history is about to emerge, a statistical mosaic revealing who residents are, where they live, the languages they speak - even how long it takes them to get from home to work.

The release of census data, beginning this month, will launch a nationwide transformation affecting everything from the makeup of Congress to the siting of new library branches and the availability of ethnic foods at the local supermarket.

The stakes are enormous, from a political and a business standpoint.

The federal government will apportion about $200 billion a year for the next decade on the basis of census results. The boundaries of the House of Representatives will be redrawn to reflect a population shift away from the Midwest and Northeast toward California and the Sun Belt. Control of legislatures across the United States will be up for grabs.

Businesses will pore over the numbers to decide where to locate new franchises and what products to stock in which neighborhoods.

Hidden in the numbers, which will trickle out over the next two years, are myriad discoveries and small dramas.

Take the city of Detroit. If the population there drops below 1 million, it will mark the failure of a decades-long battle to stem a seemingly unstoppable exodus.

Once the fourth-largest city in America, Detroit saw its population peak at 1.8 million in the 1950 Census - and decline ever since.

The growth of Los Angeles, Houston and San Diego pushed Detroit to seventh on the list of biggest cities in 1990. In 2000, it's likely Detroit will have dropped further, to 10th place, behind Dallas, Phoenix and San Antonio.

The most basic purpose of the census is to allow the people of the United States' representative democracy to fine-tune their government, recalibrating every 10 years to account for ebbs, flows and shifts in population. That is required by the Constitution.

Coming at a time when America is almost evenly split between the two major parties, the once-a-decade redrawing of legislative boundaries promises to be among the most contentious and consequential ever. While control of Congress - now Republican by the narrowest of margins - hangs in the balance, a good deal more is riding on the outcome.

"The legislatures within each state are as close as they've ever been in history," said Tim Storey, a redistricting expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan research group.

The census numbers will also be used to redraw lines for local offices, such as city councils and county boards.

The population figures dictate federal funding for everything from roads, bridges and school textbooks to drug treatment programs and health care for the poor. In all, about 80 percent of federal grants are tied to census data.

The nation's population snapshot was taken April 1. That day, the census turned up 281,421,906 Americans. The Census Bureau estimates it missed 3 million people, an undercount that is far smaller than the one 10 years ago but big enough to generate controversy.

The undercount tended to miss minorities and others with Democratic leanings, so Democrats want the Census Bureau to adjust its final figures to account for those overlooked. But Republicans say the original count is more accurate.

President Bush has until tomorrow to announce whether the figures will be adjusted.

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