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The Politics of Census Taking

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INTERGROUP and interstate rivalries are converging around the forthcoming 1990 census, whose findings will determine not only the size of a state's congressional representation and the amount of special federal aid states and municipalities receive, but also will serve as a basis for reapportionment of state legislative seats. For minorities in particular, census figures years have come to represent a source of group pride and rationale for government benefits and political positions. ``In America you don't count if you are not counted!'' said the American Committee for Cape Verde, which sought inclusion in the 1980 census as a distinct group, thereby assuring ``a fair share'' of federal community development funds, construction contracts, and jobs. The Asian Indian ``Association of Indians in America'' succeeded in being classified as ``Asian or Pacific Islander'' rather than as ``Caucasian white,'' also in the belief that such a status would benefit them economically. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland said that census procedures discriminated against some ``15 million Polish Americans ... with the result that millions of dollars in government community programs and benefits have been lost.''

Demands for changes are being made in Congress and the courts. States with large numbers of unrecorded black, Spanish-speaking, and Asian residents (legal and illegal) want such people included in the census, while states with few uncounted minorities oppose changes in census procedures.

When a suit was filed to exclude illegal aliens in the 1980 census, New York and California opposed it. By counting illegals, California stood to gain additional congressional seats, and New York, whose population had declined, would lose one instead of four seats. Because city electoral districts are frequently based on census data, minorities wanted districts redrawn and at-large elections ended in order to insure one of their own members being elected to city councils.

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