THE US Census Bureau lost a battle with Congress earlier this year in its quest to make a more accurate official tally of Americans with a method called "statistical sampling." So now it will use the old-fashioned way of locating those people who regularly get missed, often because they don't want to be counted.
But before the head count begins in 2000, the first task is to reduce the need to seek out those don't mail in their census forms. The bureau has launched an ad campaign - $102.8 million worth - to persuade people to fill out the forms.
The bureau hopes to avoid the embarrassment of 10 years ago - when the constitutionally mandated census was estimated to have missed 8.4 million people. Most of the missed were poor, often minority, often non-English speaking.
Thus TV, radio, and print ads going out this month make a special appeal to Hispanics, African-Americans, and American Indians. The pitch is that participation in the census gives people a voice - and a better chance of getting government dollars and programs, which are apportioned on the basis of population.
Skeptics say that call to civic self-interest won't work - that people who've tossed out census forms in the past won't heed the ads.
We hope they're proven wrong. In case they're not, the census will still do a statistical sample of some 300,000 households to arrive at a second, "corrected" total, in addition to the head-count tally. But the figures obtained that way won't be used for congressional reapportionment, per a January Supreme Court ruling.
For other purposes, such as redistricting at the state level, the sampling numbers could be used. It's largely up to the states - which means the highly partisan census debate of 1999 could break out in state houses come 2001.
For now, the need is to get the count done as effectively as possible. Every citizen (and noncitizen resident) can have a hand in that.
May the ads hit their mark.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society