The year 2000 is still 2-1/2 years off. But for head counters at the US Census Bureau, that's perilously close to deadline, which is why they were on edge this week as Congress debated whether to rule out a critical statistical method.
That method, sampling, is universally endorsed by statisticians, and bureau officials see it as the best way to avoid the undercount problems that beset the 1990 census. On Wednesday Senate opponents relented and put aside a plan to ban any funding for sampling. But the ban could revive later in the House.
For now, however, the well-oiled census machinery can move ahead. The bureau's plan, in essence, is to use direct methods - mail-in forms, phone calls, and personal interviews - to reach 90 percent of the housing units in each census tract of roughly 4,000 people. Then it will sample 1 in 10 of the remaining units. The data gathered from this sampling, and from an accompanying nationwide survey of 750,000 households, will help fill in the inevitable census gaps.
You just can't ring every doorbell in the country, especially in areas where doorbells don't work or don't exist. Poor, disadvantaged, and uneducated Americans will be helped most by the use of sampling, whether they live in South Central Los Angeles or in the hollows of Appalachia. More accurate counting of poor, often minority populations will mean better targeting of government programs to assist them.
It will also mean legislative districts drawn with a better grasp of their numbers. That sets off alarms. Republicans feel threatened because much of the undercounted populace will fall in the Democratic column. Lawmakers from big states see more to gain than those from small states.
But such political reflexes ought to be tempered by the simple fact that sampling will enable the Census Bureau to do a better job. The most accurate count possible is, after all, what the Constitution's framers had in mind when they called for an "actual enumeration" every 10 years. Sound census data helps provide fuel for a functioning democracy.