Counting on controversy .

Debate rages over 2000 census and statistical sampling

When it comes to conducting the 2000 census, the one thing you can count on is controversy. Most realize the federal government conducts: count of the U.S. population every 10 years. But not as many understand just what this information is used for and why it’s of critical importance not only to state and local governments, but also for private businesses and lending institutions.

Census data is not only used to develop plans for roads, schools, hospitals and other public services across the country, but based on the information it yields, critical economic decisions are made by all levels of government, including the allocation of about $180 billion in federal funds.

Perhaps more importantly, census numbers are also used to divvy up the nation’s political power. After each census, the number of congressional seats for each state is reapportioned so that members represent basically the same number of people, and state legislatures use census data to redraw their district lines.

But according to Robert Mallett, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, which oversees the census, the Census Bureau missed about 8 million people and erroneously included another 4 million in the 1990 census. That’s a net national undercount of approximately 4 million, comprised mostly of children and minorities. Indeed, the 1990 census was so inaccurate that Congress was compelled to pass legislation, signed by former President George Bush, directing the National Academy of Sciences and other experts to conduct a study on how to get the most accurate count possible.

What they came up with was “statistical sampling,” designed to reduce the undercount of minorities, immigrants and the nation’s poor. Statistical sampling is designed to adjust census results in areas where people historically don’t return their forms or respond to door-to-door canvassers. “It’s designed to detect the undercount and correct it, giving us a 0.1% accuracy,” says Mallett.

Yet some Republicans, such as Newt Gingrich, are so opposed to sampling that they have filed a suit against President Clinton and the Census Bureau to prevent it from being used in the next census. In late August, a panel of three Federal judges unanimously sided with House Republicans, barring statistical samples in the 2000 census. “They don’t want sampling because it will enhance the number of blacks and Hispanics who tend to vote Democratic,” says University of Maryland political scientist Ronald Walters. “The ones most likely to lose [seats] are those with Republican control and the whitest districts because they’re already the ones most accurately counted.”

The debate came to a head this summer following comments made by Vice President Al Gore at the NAACP convention in Atlanta, where Gore quipped that Republicans “don’t even want to count you.” Assistant Majority Whip Dan Miller (R-Florida) responded by blasting Gore in a letter, calling his remarks “inflammatory and divisive.” Miller claims that Republicans included $100 million more than Clinton requested for the year 2000 census budget. “We don’t support the administration’s plan to use the questionable practice of sampling, but Congressional Republicans are fully committed

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