No one ever said that getting 222 million Americans to stand still for a head count would be easy. The US Census Bureau has warned all along that, based on past experience, an undercount of the 1980 population was inevitable. Therefore , the nationwide outcry from big-city mayors that the preliminary census figures currently being released are in error should come as no big surprise.
Much more than local pride is at sake in the spate of court suits being prepared by a number of cities -- New York City and Detroit already have filed suits -- to force the Census Bureau to adjust the cties' final population figures to take account of the large number of minorities, poor, and migrants city officials allege were missed when census takers made their rounds on April 1. In New York City, Chicago, and other older cities registering a sharp decline in population, according to the Census Bureau's preliminary figures, an undercount means the loss of millions of dollars in revenue-sharing funds, highway assistance, aid to the poor, and a host of other federal programs in which funds are allocated on the basis of the census head count.
Moreover, Congress and many state and local legislative bodies will be reapportioned next year according to the census findings. Some older cities such as Buffalo and Rochester, New York, for instance, show population declines of nearly 25 percent, which could prompt significant cutbacks in their congressional and legislative representation. Obviously every effort needs to be made to ensure that the census data are as accurate as possible.
Big-city mayors might understandably have a tendency to think the populations of their cities are larger than is actually the case. It remains to be proved that the Census Bureau head counts are off as much as municipal officials say they are. To its credit, the Census Bureau for the first time is giving local government bodies a two-week review period in which to produce proof that mistakes were made. But, as the US Conference of Mayors has noted, two weeks is hardly enough time to provide documented evidence of Census Bureau oversights.
A case can be made for using statistically adjusted figures for determining federal assistance formulas, if not for congressional representation. According to Justice Department lawyers, the Constitution and census statutes require congressional representation to be based on the number of persons actually counted. However, many demographers -- as well as the National Academy of Sciences -- argue that adjusted data come closer to approximating "true figures." One way to do this, say the experts, is to use other sources of information, such as social security rolls, motor vehicle registrations, and school enrollments, in conjunction with census data.
The outcome of detroit's suit, scheduled to be heard in federal court on Aug. 18, could have an impact in other cities. Even if Detroit succeeds in proving an undercount, it is questionable whether the Census Bureau will be able to revise its count by Dec. 31, when by law it is required to produce a final population figure to be used for congressional reapportionment. With so much at stake, the Detroit decision will likely be appealed to the US Supreme Court.
Congress, in he meantime, ought to give careful consideration to proposals for using adjusted counts in future censuses. Either Congress or the corts should see to it that the kind of controversy and confusion surrounding this year's head count is avoided in the future.