The census goes down for the count

The first census is supposed to have taken place in Babylon, which may explain a few things. We can assume that some of the confused people around the Tower of Babel were garbling their numbers as well as their words.

To muddy language, to muddle statistics -- it's all pretty much the same in the end. One is misrepresenting the world about one. One is making it very hard to "know the score."

Did anybody sue the Babylonian census-takers, as New York City and New York State are now suing the United States Census Bureau? Our Census Bureau concedes that 5.5 million Americans may have gone untagged in the Great 1980 Nose Count, and New York City and State claim about a million of the missing as theirs. Federal funds, and even congressional seats, tremble in the balance here and elsewhere, and everybody is getting quite cross.

But there's more to it than high stakes. 1980 has just been a bad year for a census. The best years for a census occur when a general expansiveness fills the air, and the new figurre are celebrated as an indicator that America is growing not only bigger but better, every day, in every way.

Hardly a description of the mood of 1980! "Who are all these strangers, taking mym place at the beach and draining gas from mym fuel pump?" -- tis is more likely to be the grumpy response of today's recounted American, threatend by nothing so much as the sight of a crowd.

In our current discontent the Census Bureau is popularly perceived as another case of bumbling bureaucracy. We pay over a billion dollars -- $4 a nose -- and we can't even find out exactly h ow many of us there are! If we can't count (one-and, two-and . . .), what can we do right?

Such carping is not really fair to the census-takers, and we ought to remind ourselves that a census-taker of 1890, Herman Hollerith, went on to found IBM. If that doesn't help -- and it probably wonht -- we should confess to an anciently shared prejudice against the census. From the first Babylonian to be counted, we the enumerated have harbored one question: Why do they want to know?m

The census-takers maker us all feel like country folk vs. city slickers. Even in the good years for a census we cannot rid ourselves of the nasty suspicion that something they find out -- perhaps all that data on our plumbing -- may be used against us.

Government and statistics certainly constitute one of nature's most dangerous combinations.

Just the other day we learned that the Department of Housing and Urban Development arrives at its "poverty" ratings of American communities by dividing 1979 "poverty" estimates by 1976 population figures. This formula gives Memphis , Ala. -- a town that blossomed from 55 to 130 inhabitants between 1976 and 1979 -- a poverty rating of 127.27 percent, topping even Santee, S.C. (125 percent) and Gay, Ga. (115 percent), not to mention all the comparatively prosperous towns with only 100 percent poverty.

So far the people at HUD -- working their usual 25-to-26 hour day -- have stuck by the formula, insisting: "We simply take it to mean that a place has maximum poverty."

If the computers of ex-census-taker Herman Hollerith can do tricks like this in 1980, what will they not do with population figures when they become trulym sophisticated?

The counted citizen -- whether defined as "poor" or not -- has an uncomfortable feeling of being not only measured but somehow judged. The words "census" and "censor" are obviously related. The Roman censor, a kind of early Big Brother, combined in his office the duties of counting noses and guarding public morals -- a dougle function guaranteed to produce incurable categorizing.

"We certainly donht feel poor," said the postmaster of Gay, Ga. "To look at the town, it presents a very nice appearance." But census-takers don't deal in feelings or in appearnces or in anything very human. Whether the census counts us by grains of corn (as in Egypt) or by computer chips, the process reduces human beings to numbers, to percentiles, to population curves and demographic charts.

Every 10 years should we declare the census "too close to call" -- like certain other nose-counters -- and pocket the billion dollars as a sort of windfall profit? The idea is tempting. But the census is a social necessity -- probably. We just don't have to like it 127.27 percent.

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