Early 1980 US Census Bureau figures are drawing a line between the Northeast and the Southwest -- one with different political implications for those on both sides.
New York, Chicago, and points between are wondering where they went wrong now that the new census trends indicate a speeded-up population "outflow," with a proportional draining of federal funds.
City officials in the Northeast contend that the census figures reflect "a political decision" to undercount the "underclass" of poor blacks and Hispanics concentrated in the older, polyglot, industrialized cities along the first immigrant corridor stretching from the Statue of Liberty to the Great Lakes.
Meanwhile, big-city census gainers -- such as Houston and Los Angeles -- wonder if climbing the population ladder is worth the effort.
The shift of population to the Southwest 10 years ago carried 11 congressional seats along with it. The Census Bureau's current estimate is that 1980 figures will transfer 14 more seats. The expected losers are: New York (four seats); Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania (two each); Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, and South Dakota (one each). The expected beneficiaries are: Florida (three seats); California and Texas (two each); Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, and Washington (one each).
For the South and West, these congressional changes are fully justified -- and, if anything, overdue. Accordingly, the view in the South and West is that the Northeast should accept these changes gracefully rather than try to delay them through court action now under way in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Illinois challenging census results.
Perhaps 1980 is proving a particularly sensitive time in the Northeast-Southwest wrangling because this may be the year that two switches take place. Population gains may snatch the so-called "second city" title for Los Angeles as Chicago dips below 3 million inhabitants. And Houston may top 1. 7 million this year, just as Philadelphia passes that mark going the other way.
The new standings soon could read: No. 1, New York; No. 2, Los Angeles, No. 3 , Chicago, No. 4, Houston, and No. 5, Philadelphia.
Los Angeles and Houston -- among 8,500 out of the Census Bureau's 39,000 reporting units -- are convinced that the first round of "working figures" includes significant undercounts, particularly in minority areas. But the Southwestern tendency is to work with the Census Bureau on recanvassing disputed areas while accepting that undercounts are roughly similar in all parts of the nation.
In this view, congressional seats and the $50 billion in federal funds allocated on a population basis each year will be divided fairly because the population proportions are corrct even if the actual headcount is fractionally low.
Bernie Peterson, chief of the research division of the Houston city planning department, sees the Northeast playing as spoiler's game. He and other city officials in Houston and Los Angeles accept that the North's population losses create problems for that region. But they point out that population increases, including large influxes of undocumented aliens, impose heavy costs for their region as well. They doubt their population gains will brings enough in additional federal funds to cover all the extra costs.
Mr. Peterson's advice to the northeast is that "If the Northern cities require more money, they should go through the proper political process. They should go directly to Congress to get the funding formulas changed, instead of trying to slip in the back door by getting their population figures adjusted."
The problem with this advice, New York and Chicago officials point out, is that the Northeast's voice is growing fainter as more congressional seats follow the official population shift to the South and West.
David Jones, director of New York's census effort, thinks other parts of the country should join the Northeast's battle to ensure a more accurate count -- and to retain some of the congressional seats about to be lost.
"It's very shortsighted for other areas to lick their chops," he says, "because if you leave people here without being counted, you are sowing the seeds for things like the Miami riots."
Charging that the census will miss large numbers of blacks and Hispanics if it lists New York in 1980 at 6.8 million, down a full million from 1970, Mr. Jones warns: "Take the employment away, take the congressional representation away from the minority areas, and you ensure you are going to have disorder."
The Northeast's answer is to use court orders to keep the census count continuing and then force the Census Bureau to "adjust" its final figures to reflect those still uncounted.
The chief Census Bureau spokesman in Washington, Henry Smith, responds that great strides have been made in counting minority areas more accurately -- and this helps explain why the 1980 census is costling more than $1 billion, compared to $221 million spent on the 1970 census.