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The Census Just Keeps Going

Keep counting, no matter how thick the political flak. That could well have been the motto of the US Census Bureau ever since it revved up the 2000 headcount late last year.

The initial revving involved widespread advertising to get people ready to cooperate when the census forms landed in their mailboxes. The ads were aimed, especially, at the minority communities that have been chronically undercounted.

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And, in fact, the advertising campaign appears to have paid off. African-Americans, for example, have shown increased participation in the census - to be exact, a 1 percent jump over 1990. Not much, perhaps, but it reverses a few decades of declining participation. Hispanics have filled out their forms at an increased rate, too, as have Asian-Americans.

Now that the process has shifted from mail-in forms to house-to-house canvassing, census takers are encountering some places - such as some of Chicago's tonier neighborhoods - where white, higher-income people are the most resistant to giving the census a few minutes of their time. Is this the ironic offshoot of comments made by various prominent Republicans a few weeks back about intrusive census questions?

Speaking of matters partisan, sparring over statistical sampling still surfaces occasionally in Congress. Democrats like the idea, because the method would further reduce undercounts in poorer (traditionally Democratic) areas where mobility is often greater and people are harder to track down. Republicans dislike it, for obvious political reasons, as well as distrust of the methodology.

The Supreme Court, interpreting federal law, said sampling could not be used to apportion seats in Congress - but could be used for other things, such as redrawing districts and determining representation in state legislatures.

Accordingly, the antisampling crusade has largely moved to the states, where Republican politicians are writing laws to block the use of sampling-augmented census numbers to draw state legislative boundaries. So the battle goes on.

But so, gratefully, does the counting. Americans need the best national portrait they can get as they head into the new century.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society