Wanted: a National Census We Can Count On

Why do millions of people just say "no" to the census form? We pride ourselves on our individuality and spunk. In a nation where each of us is supposed to count for so much, why do so many refuse to be counted?

This is a complex problem. Not only congressional reapportionment and distribution of federal money are at stake. So, too, is our identity. The census, when complete, shows a profile of our country, a basic outline of who we are at a particular time. It provides a national self-portrait for ourselves and for posterity.

What a delicate matter this is, considering that the next constitutionally mandated census will take place in 2000. This will not be just the basic decennial census; it will be the millennial census, one of time's major landmarks. We must do our best to correct the numerous flaws so apparent in the 1990 census, which missed millions of people and was the first in history to be more inaccurate than the previous one.

Rather than improving on past mistakes, the administration and Congress seem bent on making a bad situation worse. There's no consensus on the census. Who would think that an issue so important to everyone could become just another political minefield? Realistic planning for the census has now given way to ideological battles about how to conduct our national tally.

Armed with recommendations from panels of the National Academy of Sciences and a committee of the American Statistical Association, the Census Bureau attempted to redesign Census 2000 by supplementing the traditional household count with scientific sampling techniques. Used properly, the bureau hopes this approach can both reduce costs and improve accuracy. A method that will add millions to our numbers and subtract millions from the cost of counting should definitely be considered.

President Clinton supports the use of statistical sampling because he hopes it will include most of those missed last time - minorities and urban dwellers. Such undercounting, he claims, only distorts the decisions of government and business concerning everything from health care to advertising. The needs of people cannot be adequately addressed unless we know how many people there are. The Republicans, on the other hand, have sued to stop the use of sampling, claiming it is unconstitutional and will only help the Democratic Party by including more minorities, many of whom tend to vote Democratic. Instead, they want the president to do what is necessary to end the minority undercount. That's easier said than done.

Without a census we can count on, we'll be the generation that couldn't be counted on because we couldn't count.

Part of the problem may be with the very concept of census-taking. By definition, a census is a list of items not easy to count. It's natural to expect problems.

Some suggest the current proposal is unconstitutional because it's not an "actual enumeration." It involves questioning a randomly selected group of people and using the information to describe a much larger group. Nevertheless, if the new procedure is implemented, it will supplement the census without supplanting it. About 90 percent of the project will still depend upon the census form.

THERE'S no time like the present to improve it. If Vice President Gore can demand the removal of bureaucratic jargon from government forms, why not also simplify and clarify the census form? The format should be as user-friendly as those battalions of enumerators who will visit households across the country. In addition, people must be able to understand instructions in order to follow them. That necessitates the dependable use of translations.

Ultimately a public education program is just the thing to make all Americans realize that when 2000 arrives, everyone should be proud to say: "I was there."

* Susan Weiner, a Miami writer, is the author of 'Law in Art: Melville's Major Fiction and Nineteenth-Century American Law' (Peter Lang, 1992).

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