Even if the 1980 Census made mistakes, it is still the best count we have of the US population, and the courts should keep their hands off the results, says Census Bureau director Bruce Chapman.
Confirmed in his new post only four weeks ago, Mr. Chapman vigorously defended his agency over breakfast Oct. 29 with reporters. The bureau faces some 50 lawsuits brought by urban areas such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit, charging that the 1980 count missed thousands of residents, especially racial minorities.
''The contentions of the suits is that the census should be held accountable, like Fort Knox,'' he said, adding that census forms are not always answered correctly.
Despite errors, the count in 1980 is ''more accurate than it ever has been before,'' he said. Chapman, a former secretary of state in Washington State with a longtime interest in statistics, maintains that last year's count missed only about 5.5 percent of black residents, compared with 7.7 percent in 1970.
The stakes in the once-a-decade census are high because the courts use the figures to determine districts for Congress and statehouses. Some US aid is divided according to census figures.
Calling the cases a ''danger'' to the census, Chapman said, ''Litigation is full of pitfalls for statistics.'' If the court orders his agency to put 100,000 more people in Chicago, for example, the next question would be where to put them, since census tracts narrow the population down to specific neighborhoods.
The bureau is also fending off in the Supreme Court a request to reveal addresses of respondents to local governments that want to challenge census findings. ''We can require answers (from residents) and in turn guarantee confidentiality,'' said Chapman. ''It is tremendously important that we not betray that contract.''
He also said that observers may have sounded the death knell too soon for the Northeast. He says that New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine posted population gains and that only Texas and Florida in the Sunbelt had big population jumps. Future population shifts will come more on a state-by-state basis than by region , he predicted.