The 1980 census: it's 1982 and they're still counting

Millions -- perhaps billions -- of dollars, both public and private, may be wasted through spending decisions based on outdated census information.

Delays in compiling data from the 1980 federal census have left both government and corporate planners little choice but to rely on sometimes more than decade-old facts and figures in the shaping of government programs or the locating of new industrial facilities.

Beyond their age, sex, and race, little is known about the 226,504,827 resident Americans counted more than 24 months ago in the nation's most expensive head count. And those responsible for compiling current detailed data are under increasing pressure to publish their findings.

But it could be another 18 months, perhaps longer, before the final report from the April 1980 census is available.

Census Bureau officials blame the delays on funding uncertainties last year and spending cutbacks that meant layoffs of some 500 workers at the agency's three data processing centers.

But a General Accounting Office (GAO) investigation of the Census Bureau's data-compilation lag, concluded in late February, reported to Congress that millions of dollars had been wasted on duplicate effort. They warned of a $4 billion 1990 census. The GAO urged quick decisions on alternative procedures.

Anxiously awaited within the business community, Congress, and various government agencies, is a series of reports based on data concerning employment, education, income levels, marital status, veteran status, language usage, and means of transportation to and from work.

In the absence of more current data, some $4 billion in federal revenue still is being distributed to over 39,000 state and local government units on the basis of 1977 information, points out Michael Ferrell, staff director of the House Subcommittee on Census and Population. These still missing details are used in calculations for federal grants, welfare programs, and corporate marketing campaigns, for example.

While acknowledging that it has taken longer than anticipated to compile the information about where and how people live, officials of the US Census Bureau refuse to be tied down to a completion date.

''We are moving full speed ahead in getting the reports out as fast a possible,'' asserts Earl Knapp, the agency's publications coordinator, who also attributes the delays in part to the fact that the project is more complex than previous decennial population counts.

The first of the reports, involving compilations for all 50 states and the 38 largest metropolitan areas, is to be released April 19. Similar clusters of information will follow during the next six to eight weeks.

More detailed breakdowns, however, are not expected until later this year and early 1983. Even later will come answers to questions such as where people work, their ethnic ancestry, and other related matters, according to Paula Schneider, special assistant to federal census director Bruce Chapman.

Some of the delays were caused by the mandate that population figures needed for congressional reapportionment be completed by April 1981. This especially affected the sifting of information from questions on the so-called long form, filled out by about 19 percent of the households across the US.

''To meet that deadline, we had to put our full staff to work on it,'' Ms. Schneider explains. In past censuses, she notes, such state population breakdowns were not required by any specific date.

Although declining to promise anything, Census Bureau officials say they are hopeful all material will be compiled and reports out by the Sept. 30, 1983. Shortly thereafter, preparations must begin for the 1990 census, one which they hope will cost less, or at least no more than, the approximately $4 per resident cost of the current project.

Congressional critics pressing toward completion of the 1980 federal census are particularly concerned over the cost of the ongoing project. Close to $1 billion already has been spent on the data-gathering and compilation project, more than quadruple the $222 million it cost a decade ago.

While conceding that some of the increased cost of the 1980 census was unavoidable because of inflation, one congressional aide holds that procedures used in collecting and compiling data are overly expensive and ''not up to the state of the art.''

Funding cutbacks in several other federal agencies during the past year have forced the Census Bureau to discontinue collection and publication of various other types of data used by government and businesses. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, has stopped keeping track of collective bargaining in work places with fewer than 1,000 employees.

Abolition of the Community Services Administration, the successor to the Office of Economic Opportunity, has cut off state by state information concerning spending on poverty-related government programs.

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