Early peek at census data has some mayors upset

Municipal officials from Boston to Los Angeles are getting their first squint at tallies of last spring's federal head count in their domains, and more than a few do not like what they are seeing.

Reactions ranging from disappointment to outrage are echoing particularly in urban areas, where large numbers of people, including aliens and minorities, may have been missed.

While the figures being passed out to local governments by the US Bureau of the Census are purely preliminary, they will become official later on, except where oversights or other mistakes can be proved. And this is none too easy a process, since but 10 days are afforded for the reviews.

The advance peek, newly built into the decennial census process, is intended to improve the accuracy of the population totals, which has posed an increasing challenge in the past.

In the 1970 count, an estimated 53 million people -- some 2.5 percent of those living in the nationa -- were missed, and 7.7 percent of those overlooked were members of minority groups, according to census officials.

Although optimistic that a more thorough job of people-counting is being done this time, those involved in the project readily concede it will not be perfect and that avoiding an undercourt is impossible.

Ordinarily it is two or three years after the census before such revised figures are compiled.

Census Bureau statisticians this time, however, may be forced to do a speedler job.

Much could hinge on the outcome of a suit by Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, seeking to force the federal government to use undercourt-adjusted figures in determining his city's population.

At issue in the litigation is not only the apportionment of seats in the US House of Representatives beginning in January 1982 but also federal revenue-sharing and the allocation of billions of other aid program dollars from Washington.

The Detroit federal court trial, scheduled to begin Aug. 18 before Judge Horace Gilmore, will be closely watched by municipal officials from more than a few other cities whose communities could stand to benefit were undercount-adjusted figures used for the 1980 census.

Affidavits critical of the accuracy of the head count and how it was conducted will be submitted by the US Conference of Mayors in support of the Detroit suit.

Is is unlikely, however, that any municipal chief executive other than Mayor Young will participate in the proceedings, which some observers suggest could go all the way to the US Supreme Court.

Detroit, a city with a substantial black population, may be undercounted as much as 67,000 says Joseph Baltimore of the city's legal staff.

Officials in New York, whose inhabitants include substantial numbers of blacks, Hispanics, and aliens, suggest that upward of 150,000 persons there were missed in the April census.

And in Chicago leaders of the Hispanic community have initiated a suit to force the local distric census office in their neighborhoods to stay open until a plan is devised by counting members of that minority group who were overlooked in the original tally.

Meanwhile, some critics of the census have gone to Congress with their complaints.

Mayors Richard Berkley of Kansas City, Maynard Jackson of Atlanta, and Edward Koch of New York spoke out in none too glowing terms in July 31 testimony before two congressional subcommittees concerned with improving the process.

Mayor Jackson cited a Conference of Mayors survey of 100 cities, including the nation's 42 biggest, in which more than half listed problems concerning the way the census was conducted within their communities.

The most frequent complaints, involving 56 of the cities, dealt with either an undercount of people or missing households.

Federal census officials say they are not surprised by the response from aggrieved local officials who, they suggest, may have been unrealistic in their expectations of population. It is noted that an increase in the number of households does not necessary indicate more people, since the average number of residents per dwelling has dropped over the past decade, from 3.1 to 2.8.

Under the US Constitution, the population figures produced through the census are the basis for apportionment of congressional seats and the figures must be transmitted by January to the individual states for use in redistricting.

Should Detroit win its case, it is questionable whether the census bureau could come up with the undercount adjustments in time for this deadline.

This could pose serious constitutional and legal problems resulting in perhaps either a delay in redistricting or a revision later in the decade.

More easily accomplished might be a reallocation of federal funds to both states and local governments, based on census figures.

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