You're off by a half million people - or maybe not

Some say statistical sampling is more thorough, but census officials question its accuracy. Lawsuits result.

When the state of California distributes funding to its cities and counties this year, it will depend on its own population figures - not the official ones released by the US Census Bureau.

That's because California wants to use statistical sampling, which aims to catch those missed in the head count. It puts half a million more people in the state than the Census Bureau does - a sizable difference when deciding who and what needs aid most.

California's decision to go with statistical sampling is a new twist in Census 2000 and is part of a larger debate surrounding what numbers reflect the most accurate portrait of America.

Although the Census Bureau also tried statistical sampling - and even used the most sophisticated techniques to date - it has balked at releasing the numbers. That has caused a flurry of lawsuits, polarized Democrats and Republicans, and left state demographers to wonder which set of numbers is the better one.

The Census Bureau put the brakes on the statistical numbers because it didn't feel confident they were more accurate than the traditional numbers. The adjusted figures also generated controversy under the elder President Bush.

The current Bush administration has already announced that the traditional figures, which were largely improved from the 1990 census, will be the official ones for redrawing election districts.

But William Barron, director of the Census Bureau, says the agency will work through the summer reviewing data to reach a recommendation on whether the adjusted numbers will be released for federal-funding distribution.

"We found that using the statistical method is an unexpectedly hard thing to do," says Mr. Barron. "We believe it is irresponsible on our part to release numbers that could still change."

Yet some state planners, demographers, politicians, and civil rights groups are fighting for what they consider their right to access the second set of numbers, says John Chambers, the spokesperson for the Presidential Members of the US Census Monitoring Board. They worry about the 6.4 million people estimated to be missed in the traditional count - the majority of whom are poor, minorities, and immigrants, including a large number of undocumented immigrants.

And they maintain that the impact on needy communities could be devastating. "Flaws in census data deter investors, homeowners, and private enterprise in communities," said Darrell Gaskin, of the Institute for Health Care Research and Policy at Washington's Georgetown University Medical Center, at a recent conference. "It steers resources away from the poorest areas."

Texas and California, as well as certain members of Congress, have entered separate lawsuits pushing for the release of the adjusted numbers by the bureau, says Ben Chevat, chief of staff for Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D) of New York.

The controversy that swirls around the census is often about politics, says Doug Peterson, a senior policy analyst at the National League of Cities in Washington. Democrats would like to inflate minority numbers for election purposes, while undercounts usually benefit Republicans.

The stakes are high for both parties. "Redistricting is more important than campaign contributions, because it locks communities in for 10 years, until the next census," says Mr. Peterson.

But politics isn't the first concern in communities like Washington Heights in New York City, a largely Hispanic neighborhood. Manuel Casanova, a Puerto Rican, lives there with his wife and children in a friend's apartment. But his family wasn't included in the 2000 census and is thus not factored into transportation, school, or hospital decisions.

"If the undercount were uniform across the country, it wouldn't be a big deal," says Peterson, "but the census differentially undercounts certain groups." The Hispanic Federation in New York, for example, claims that of the 6.4 million estimated to be missed in Census 2000, one-fifth are of Hispanic origin.

While disputing census figures has myriad motives - from funding, to politics, to simply getting an accurate look at a community - some are angered by what they see as a violation of their freedom to public information.

The Presidential Members of the US Census Monitoring Board recently issued a letter to the Senate claiming they cannot fully monitor the 2000 census since the bureau is withholding statistical numbers. They have recently released their own adjusted figures for the largest counties in the country.

But Barron says the bureau is just trying to act as responsibly as possible. "They expect us to give out data on demand. I've never heard of that for a statistical agency," he says. "We are just trying to release the most accurate information."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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