Waning cities win census count 'adjustment,' but it may not mean an urban budget bonanza

When the final 1980 census count is in, "adjustments" may still have to come from Northern cities, and not from the Census Bureau. Under a federal district court ruling in Detroit Sept. 25, the Census Bureau has been ordered to "adjust" its 1980 returns to compensate for a suspected heavy undercount of the poor and minorities.

Detroit -- with support from many other cities such as New York, Philadelphia , and Newark, N.J. -- argued that the census was missing large numbers of blacks and Hispanics in urban areas, thereby depriving cities with large minority populations of a fair share of federal funds and congressional representation.

Many city mayors spoke out confidently of reaping millions in additional funding if only the Census Bureau could be forced into "adjusting" its figures rather than relying largely on actual head counts.

But census officials warn there may be a disappointment in store for cities expecting to have more money to spend thanks to a census adjustment. In response to a 1975 court challenge, the Census Bureau studied the effects of a population adjustment for Newark, N.J. There would have been a $900 gain in revenue sharing funds by adjusting the headcount figures.

But if the count had been adjusted to reflect the fact that solid citizens consistently underreport their income, Newark would have lost $131,000.

Still, following the Detroit ruling, New York City mayoral aide David Jones, who monitors the census count, said the ruling will have a major effect nationally.

Using his city as an example, he said that without adjustment "New York could be essentially decimated, with a loss of $1.5 billion to $2 billion over the next 10 years, a body blow to the city's hopes for the future." If there is effective correction of undercounting, he insists, "New York will suffer almost no loss in federal funding, and there will be a maximum loss of one [ congressional] seat rather than the four we are facing now."

Jones feels that adjustment raises major political problems because "obviously certain states could stand to gain a real windfall out of an undercount of large urban areas." But he said allowing the undercount to go uncorrected would "challenge the whole theory of democracy." He said this view clearly influenced the Detroit ruling, which states in part that "the undercount gives rise to a constitutional violation of the one-person, one-vote principle because blacks simply are not counted as much as whites."

Michael Ferrell, congressional aide with the House Subcommittee on Census and Population, says he feels that the required adjustment in census figures is a significant "victory for the urban poor and minority group that have been excluded from the census."

Joseph Baltimore, the attorney who successfully managed Detroit's case against the Census Bureau, is certain that the adjusted 1980 census will be "an accurate picture of our country."

He says that on the basis of raw information already on Census Bureau computer tapes, the bureau can precisely estimate local undercounts and deliver final figures by August, only four months late and still in time for adjusting federal spending levels and reapportioning congressional seats.

Census Bureau information chief Henry H. Smith agrees that there are no insurmountable technical obstacles to the Census Bureau developing extremely accurate methods for counting the several million people who either deliberately avoid being counted or else are overlooked.

The one constraint has been the bureau's strict reading of the US Constitution's provision for "actual enumeration" of the population. Now the Detroit ruling -- though still subject to appeal -- has removed that assumed legal obstacle by ordering a statistical adjustment of census figures.

But Smith warns that this vote for adjustment may not offer the bonanza the nation's older cities expect. He points out that there have been "tremendous demographic changes since 1970." In the case of New England, the 1920-70 trend of steady shifts in population toward cities such as Boston, Springfield, and Hartford has reversed.

City population figures for 1980 are in dispute -- but there's no doubt about the latest figures showing that over the past decade New Hampshire's population has shot up by 25 percent; Maine and Vermont gained by over 10 percent.

With dramatic increases recorded in non-metropolitan areas, it seems clear these numbers must come from the metropolitan areas. Accordingly, after statistical adjustments are made to meet court orders, cities may find themselves still left with far fewer citizens than they had hoped.

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