TO the nation's major cities, the 1990 census means much more than a nose count. At stake is the amount of state and federal aid and political representation they will get over the next decade. That's why urban leaders are working so hard - well before the final numbers are in - to make sure cities are not shortchanged.
Most major cities have a disporportionately large share of racial minorities, groups traditionally reluctant to stand up and be counted. The US Census Bureau acknowledges that it undercounted blacks and Hispanics by about 6 percent in 1980, while it missed only 1.5 percent of the general population. New York City Mayor David Dinkins contends that 450,000 New Yorkers went uncounted in the 1980 census, costing the city some $675 million in federal aid.
Urban leaders nationally are concerned that the minority undercount may be much larger in 1990. Some experts say it could go as high as 15 percent.
States file lawsuit
Led by New York, several cities are pressing their point in a lawsuit. They want the statistical adjustment process declared constitutional and ordered done unless the Commerce Department, caretakers of the nation's census data, can prove that the raw census figures of 1990 would be more reliable.
The Census Bureau says 80 percent of the nation has now been counted. Yet the percentage counted in most big cities is still well behind the national average.
``The rate of mailed-back forms has been lower in all major cities - below or around 60 percent - and it's been particularly bad in the inner cities,'' says Joseph Chow, assistant director of Houston's Department of Planning and Development.
``There's a definite relationship between a low mail-back rate and the minority undercount,'' says Jessica Heinz, Los Angeles deputy city attorney. ``The lower the mail-back, the higher the undercount.''
``I think everyone knows there will be an undercount and that there should be an adjustment - the battle will be working with the Census Bureau and the Commerce Department to make sure it's done,'' says Jay Michaud, a lobbyist for Chicago, who is based in Washington, D.C.
New York, Houston, and Los Angeles are parties to the lawsuit. They and other major cities have been airing their concerns at regular meetings sponsered by a US Conference of Mayors' special task force chaired by Mayor Dinkins and Mayor Richard Berkley of Kansas City, Mo.
Census Bureau officials say they can reach a 100 percent count by the end of the year. In most cities federal officials and local leaders have been working together to get the count up.
Under a new procedure local officials have two opportunities to review and challenge US census efforts. New York City deputy census coordinator Hulbert James says his city challenged the Census Bureau's tally of housing units listed on some 1,600 blocks. The bureau, he says, pledged to visit them to check out any addresses missed before mailing out census forms. Yet a later check by the city, he says, showed that nearly 40 percent of the buildings receiving no census forms were in those same blocks.
The Census Bureau regards addresses as confidential and is not obliged to tell a city if its data have been acted upon.
``It's very difficult to make the bureau accountable,'' Ms. Heinz says.
Federal and local census officials say they are doing everything they can to get an accurate count. New York City, for instance, has produced more than six million flyers in seven languages, distributed curriculum guides, including sample census forms, to 1,000 public and private schools, bought $100,000 worth of radio ads, and set up a multilingual hot line to answer census questions. ``There was a massive, massive city effort here,'' Mr. James says.
Federal census officials in New York say they, too, are working hard to get the minority count up through a variety of special posters and ads and intensive community outreach efforts. Bad press for Census
Census Bureau officials say everything from news stories about imposters posing as census enumerators to the occasionally sharp criticism they get from city census officials hurts the process.
``Any negative publicity turns people off,'' says Manuel Landivar, the Census Bureau's community awareness coordinator here. ``Some people think ... the census is a failure. It isn't. Some things haven't worked as well as we wish. It just means we're going to have to work a little harder and perhaps a little longer.''
Particularly grating to many Census Bureau officials was news in April that the cities' 1988 lawsuit, settled out of court last summer, was back in court. Triggering the return was the Commerce Department's March announcement, required by the settlement, of new census adjustment guidelines. Cities saw them as too narrow to allow any adjustment at all. Dinkins called them ``a cruel joke.'' The plaintiffs, which include the states of California and New York and a variety of city and civil rights groups, say the guidelines violate the agreement reached and want them tossed out.
City officials say they had no choice on the timing ``If we'd waited until the census was over, the guidelines would have been permanent without our input,'' James insists.
He notes that New York City's latest census tally is 68 percent, still 12 points below the national average. Local census coordinators say the Census Bureau could still make changes that would help the count.
``We find there are still very disturbing problems each step of the way,'' says Conference of Mayors' spokesman Lance Simmens. He says the bureau is meeting city concerns ``halfway'' by agreeing to try to work out more-flexible procedures in the current door-to-door count.
In New York City, for instance, the bureau did agree to allow census forms to be put under apartment doors in housing projects and returned a day or two later to census workers in project lobbies. Urban census officials say they also want a meeting with Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher. ``The cities want him to give some direction to what we feel is still a major crisis,'' James says.
Meantime, local officials still want some assurance that the expected big city undercount will net a statistical adjustment. They suspect politics behind the Bush administration's reluctance to adjust the figures. If the cities do not get a favorable court ruling, they may push for action on pending bills on Capitol Hill that would make the adjustment process mandatory.