IT'S taken roughly three years, but the federal government appears to be on the verge of getting real with its census data.
By allowing a deadline to pass without appealing a court ruling, the Clinton administration is signaling that it will adopt United States population figures that have been adjusted to compensate for undercounting during the 1990 census. Last month, the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York held that government justifications for sticking to the 1990 figures were inadequate in the face of those adjustments.
In the aggregate, the changes added about 5 million people to the 248.7 million counted in 1990, an increase of about 2 percent. Much of the undercounting occurred among minorities in the Sun Belt and in large urban areas. The new numbers would help steer federal aid where it is most needed - particularly necessary when the sentiment on Capitol Hill is to cut budgets. Millions of dollars would likely be redirected toward states such as Texas, Florida, New York, Georgia, and California, and even within states toward large urban areas.
The adjustment also would cost Wisconsin and Pennsylvania each a House seat, while California and Arizona would pick up an extra seat. This would put these states through the arduous redistricting processes yet again this decade. But it also would ensure that representation in state legislatures and Congress is based on the best available population figures.
In 1992, the Bush administration rejected the use of the new numbers; Democrats cried, ``Politics!'' This year, Republicans might be expected to return the charge. Yet in both cases, the time lag between a decision and its impact on the street weighs against short-term political gain. Government decisions that affect House districts and millions of hard-won federal dollars can be expected to face court challenges. Wisconsin, for example, has said it will seek to reverse the federal appeals court's ruling; the state supported the federal government's initial decision to stick to the 1990 numbers. In contrast to the New York case, two other suits seeking the use of the revised figures have failed.
Despite such challenges, the revised figures should be used. By the Census Bureau's own reckoning, the revisions represent the most accurate figures of the US population. To arbitrarily shelve them politically and economically shortchanges people who might otherwise be helped.