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Plan to Change Census Count Draws GOP Fire

Government: Sampling could add 'missing' people. At stake are millions of dollars for California.

May 18, 1997|ROBERT A. ROSENBLATT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Republican congressional leaders are launching a determined attack on the Census Bureau's plan to alter the system it will use for counting the nation's population in 2000, pressing a dispute that could affect millions of dollars in federal funds for California and the location of a House seat.

For the first time since the decennial census was begun in 1790, the census does not plan to rely entirely on the traditional system of physically counting every individual. Instead, it plans to supplement the standard count with a computer sampling system designed to add in those who cannot be reached by census takers or mail questionnaires.

This could add millions of "missing" people, many of them members of minority groups, to the official population.

California, with its huge and growing immigrant population, could wind up with an appreciably higher count under the new system. That, in turn, could give the state a bigger share of the $100 billion in federal funds parceled out each year because many funding programs are linked to population.

Census officials insist that it is no longer realistic to expect to tally each person directly. With the large, shifting population of new residents and a growing lack of public cooperation with census takers, the official count is becoming more imprecise, they say. Returns to the census mail survey, for example, dropped from 78% in 1970 to 75% in 1980 and to 65% in 1990.

For 2000, the current plan is to reach 90% of the households by mail, telephone or personal visit, and then to use sampling techniques to make a projection of the final 10%.

However, the GOP leadership has charged that such sampling would violate the Constitution. The decennial survey must "physically count each and every American," the top four Republican House and Senate leaders said in a recent letter to census director Martha Farnsworth Riche.

The Senate imposed a ban on sampling in one recent bill but backed off after President Clinton threatened a veto. The controversy is considered certain to flare up again as the census comes closer. Riche called the dispute a sword hanging over the census--one that could disrupt the count unless it is resolved. A dress rehearsal of the census, using sampling, will be conducted next year in Sacramento and South Carolina.

At its heart, the struggle is over politics rather than statistics: The hard-to-count segments of the population tend to be Democratic.

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Members of Congress are "practical, bottom-line people," said Alana Northrop, professor of political science at Cal State Fullerton. "Democrats want sampling because it will pick up more of their voters. Republicans will attack it because it works against them."

Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in 1990 supported sampling for helping determine the population in Georgia, which stood to benefit from a higher count. Now, as House speaker and a top leader in the Republican Party, he opposes it.

A special sample conducted by the Census Bureau after the 1990 census indicated a national undercount of 4 million people, or 1.6% of the population.

The estimated undercount was particularly severe in California, equal to 2.7% of the state's population, or 834,000 people. Each of California's 52 House districts has an average of 611,000 people. Such districts are apportioned based on population, and can be shifted from less populous states to more populous ones.

The undercount was 3.8% in the city of Los Angeles, 3.3% in Los Angeles County, and 2.1% in Orange County, according to figures compiled by the California Institute for Federal Policy Research, a Washington think tank for the state and its congressional delegation.

After the 1990 census, Gov. Pete Wilson backed the Census Bureau's proposal to use the adjusted figures calculated with the special sample. "The lack of an adjustment would fail to take into account the changing demographics of California and the nation," he said in a 1991 letter to federal officials. The Bush administration rejected using the adjustment, but six years later, under a Democratic administration, the use of sampling has been approved.

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Wilson, walking a delicate political line, is anxious to get a full count of all Californians but has not criticized his Republican colleagues in Congress. "The governor's view is that we need a more accurate head count," said H.D. Palmer, assistant director of the Department of Finance in Sacramento. "Sampling may be the vehicle to get us there, or there may be alternative methods. But at the end of the day we need a more accurate count."

The Census Bureau insists that its new approach, combined with the latest in computer technology, is the best way to cope with a sprawling and sometimes resentful population. The technique involves sending especially skilled census takers into a sample area after an initial survey is made, and finding out how many persons the first sweep missed. The adjustment is then projected for larger equivalent areas.

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