Boston — Uncle Sam is having a lot of trouble keeping track of his nieces and nephews. The 1980 federal census, the costliest and most exhaustive national head count in United States history, is being challenged in the courts and in Congress.
President Carter, too, soon may be at least indirectly involved.
In dispute is whether a substantial number of people, particularly members of minority groups were missed and whether aliens, especially illegal aliens, should be counted.
Unless the situation is speedily resolved, adjustments in federal aid allocations and reapportionment of congressional seats, both of which are keyed to census tallies, could be delayed indefinitely.
What happens next depends on whether the Carter administration, specifically the US Department of Justice, appeals and succeeds in overturning an Oct. 30 federal court directive that Census Bureau "undercount" estimates be used in the offical population count, for Detroit.
Judge Horace Gilmore has given census officials until Nov. 14 to submit a plan for implementing his order, which -- if upheld -- could directly or indirectly affect 39,000 political subdivisions across the nation.
The Detroit litigation is among 19 suits filed by jurisdictions from New England to the Rocky Mountains alleging population undercounts.
Census officials hold that the population count they now are tallying is the most accurate ever and that adjustments based on statistically supported "undercount" estimates will be minimal.
Compliance with judge Gilmore's order would stake at least until next fall, agency officials argue, since it will not be until then that necessary data or ethnic and population breakdowns will be compiled.
Thus, the constitutionally mandated head count totals transmitted to President Carter on Jan. 1 will not include residents who might have been missed in the April census. The President is required by law to pass the data on to the new Congress within a week of its convening in January.
A move is afoot, however, to prevent this from happening. Critics of the 1980 census, led by US Rep. Joseph M. McDade (R) of Pennsylvania, have attached a rider to the House-approved general appropriations bill which would prohibit the President from using federal funds to convey census figures to Congress.
While the future of the restrictive amendments is uncertain, it is included in the measure recommended to the Senate by its Appropriations Committee.
Congressional objections to the census stem substantially from its inclusion of aliens, including those who entered the country illegally. Congressman McDade and his colleagues contend that these residents, unlike citizens, are not entitled to congressionasl representation.
Since just short of $1 billion has been spent on the census -- and the price tag continues to climb with the increasing avalanche of litigation -- there is little sentiment to do the job all over again before 1990.
Some federal lawmakers, especially those from the states which seem likely to lose congressional seats or federal aid if the figures currently being compiled are used, might just as soon not have the population totals sent from the White House.
Congress could, if it chose, either ignore the census figures, as was done after the 1920 decennial population count, or pass a law setting aside any reapportionment requirement. Either move, however, would be almost certainly met by court challenges on "one man, one vote" grounds, and prospects for a prolonged postponement of reapportionment would be slim.
Municipal officials in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, and other cities who are fighting for inclusion of "undercount" estimates in their 1980 census population totals maintain that unless adjustments are made their residents will be shortchanged in representation for the next decade.
State legislative seats as well s congressional reapportionment are at stake, since all but two states use federal population figures in redistricting their lawmaking bodies.
Census Bureau officials maintain that adding undercount estimates to the population figures they have would be unlikely to make a difference in the number of congressmen allotted to any state.