States, Cities Fret Over US Census


EVEN before US census takers begin going door to door with their clipboards next year, there is concern in some quarters that too few people will be counted, while others worry the tally will be too high. The fuss is understandable.

As the nation's official head count, the census is used to redraw political boundaries and determines clout in Congress. It also influences the distribution of millions of dollars in federal aid.

Thus governments and interest groups are going to unusual lengths to make sure Uncle Sam counts every head possible:

A California state lawmaker is considering drafting legislation that will ask the governor to keep National Guard armories open one night next spring and serve free meals so census takers can reach more of the homeless.

Baltimore officials are planning a census marathon, census basketball tournaments, a census march, and may produce a census video to convince people of the importance of being counted.

In Santa Ana, Calif., clergy will urge parishioners to fill out and return the government surveys on a ``census sabbath'' planned for next year.

``There isn't any way to underestimate how big of an issue the census is,'' says Peter Skerry, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

The concern about adequate head counts is a decennial one among politicians, ethnic groups, and others. But this time around, the controversy is more pronounced. In an era of austerity, everyone wants to make sure everything they want recorded gets recorded.

Outlays for hospitals, schools, highways, and a host of programs are based on population numbers. The Census Bureau has identified 60 federal programs that in 1988 distributed $73 billion in grants based all or in part on population.

Seats in the US House of Representatives will change, too. Because of population shifts, various redistricting estimates show the Sun Belt will gain 15 to 20 seats at the expense of the Frost Belt. California, Texas, and Florida are sure to be big winners, while New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio will likely be losers.

Two issues dominate the debate. One is whether illegal aliens should be included in population figures used to redraw congressional boundaries. Lawmakers from several states that fear losing political clout do not think they should. They contend that including them unfairly rewards localities where aliens live illegally.

They pushed an exclusion amendment through the Senate. But it faces stiff opposition in the House. Hearings on a measure by Rep. Tom Ridge (R) of Pennsylvania will be held next month.

Critics of the idea contend the founding fathers did not intend to exclude illegal aliens. The constitutional mandate under which the census is conducted requires all ``persons'' to be counted, something federal courts have interpreted to include illegals.

``An undocumented immigrant, regardless of his papers, is a person,'' says Michael Zamba, a lobbyist with the National Association of Elected and Appointed Latino Officials.

The other issue revolves around too few, not too many, people being counted. In 1980, the census bureau estimates it failed to count 3.2 million people, or 1.4 percent of the population. Many of these were blacks and Hispanics, which points up an enduring problem: getting a complete tally of inner-city minorities.

Crime, homelessness, mistrust of government, people in transition between residences, and families doubling up in houses bedevil census takers. Other problems: illegal aliens who refuse to cooperate, and the poor and illiterate who do not hear about the census.

Perhaps nowhere is the undercount problem more severe than in Los Angeles, the country's new immigrant capital and one with a large underclass. The Census Bureau estimates the undercount here in 1980 was more than three times the national average.

State and local officials say a similar undercount in 1990 could cost Los Angeles $110 million in federal grants over 10 years and the state more than $680 million.

The Census Bureau expects to do better in inner-city neighborhoods this time. In addition to an enlarged budget and militia of 350,000 ``enumerators'' expected to be hired, the agency is working more closely with community and religious groups to get out the word. Recruits are being hired who know their way around public housing projects. A special day has been set aside to count the homeless. Pamphlets are being distributed in 30 different languages to help immigrants.

``I feel very strongly we are going to do better than in the past,'' says Peter Bounpane, a bureau assistant director.

Others are dubious. Barbara Bailar, a former census executive who now heads the American Statistical Association, says more homeless, more immigrants who fear the government, more people who have difficulty reading English, and more people who live in overcrowded units and fear eviction may make this the most difficult census in history.

``I don't think the bureau has done anything that is going to cut into the undercount,'' she says.

Last month, several cities and states with large illegal-immigrant populations won a legal victory in which the Census Bureau agreed to double-check its count.

Yet even with this, many local officials expect problems. Thus they are doing what they can to ensure Uncle Sam hits every nook and cranny. In addition to the armory idea, state Sen. Art Torres (D) of Los Angeles is considering legislation to require the bureau to print forms in different languages and hire more workers from minority groups.

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