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Census Technique Stirs Controversy

As bureau tests new counting method in Sacramento, debate on its benefits intensifies.

Tomas is learning to be a census taker and the script on his laptop screen is still unfamiliar. As he conducts a mock interview in a makeshift classroom set up here in Sacramento, Calif., by the Bureau of the Census, he begins ad-libbing. The instructor interrupts: "That's good eye contact. But please, stick with the script."

That's just what Republicans and other critics are telling the Census Bureau as it gears up to count the population in 2000. The bureau has devised a hotly debated new plan to count only 90 percent of the US the old-fashioned way, through mailed questionnaires and then house calls on those that don't respond. The remainder would be estimated through use of a controversial sampling technique that opponents say is directly contrary to the language of the Constitution.

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The battle, intensely partisan and statistically complex, has all the makings of a classic Beltway tussle: loud, but easily ignored. Yet analysts agree it is hugely important, not only because the census represents one of the most fundamental links between population and governance but also because the current debate intersects, and in many ways is a result of, America's still-emerging form of democracy.

"This is a large and important dispute that could take 10 to 15 years to work through," says Margo Anderson, a historian at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee who wrote "The American Census: A Social History."

The long and short term

At stake in the short-term is the power of the political parties and some $60 billion in federal grants to the states, much of which is based on population figures. The point of the new census technique is to correct an undercount, which in 1990 amounted to about 4.5 million people. Most analysts agree minorities and urban populations have been underrepresented and a correction would benefit Democrats and hurt Republicans when congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn according to adjusted population figures.

Longer-term, there are some greater principles in play, having little to do with partisanship.

"I'm convinced adjustment could be a real disaster," says Peter Skerry, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in southern California currently writing a book on the census. He sees a high degree of unreliability in the sampling method the Census Bureau intends to use. He also worries that estimating a portion of the population will produce a snowball effect by further undermining public confidence in the census and creating incentive for a "participation meltdown."

Not worth the risk

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Mr. Skerry says the risk is not worth the benefit. He adds that the real issue of minority political power is participation rates, not raw numbers determined by the census count. "You don't get strength from numbers, but strength from organizing the numbers," he says.

Ms. Anderson, however, supports statistical adjustment as a well-established method of improving the accuracy of the census count. But she also believes the census debate should touch on much broader issues, some of which are submerged in history.

For most of the time since the nation's founding, a growing population was accommodated in a political sense by simply increasing the size of the House of Representatives. But in 1910 the number of congressional seats was frozen. That act, coupled with a the Supreme Court's one-man, one-vote ruling in the 1960s, requiring that each congressional district have the same number of people, resulted in a zero sum game. As the number of congressional seats grows in one place, because of population expansion, they must shrivel somewhere else.

"We're living with a House of Representatives that is much too small. I think Congress has forgotten they can [change] that," says Anderson.

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