TOPICS > Politics

Census Controversy

March 1, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: The U.S. Census Bureau worked particularly hard last year to count every American. With a $300 million campaign to locate and persuade people to fill out their census forms.

SPOKESPERSON: Fill out your census. It helps determine…

MARGARET WARNER: The Bureau was trying to avoid the problems of 1990 when the census missed an estimated eight million people, mostly minorities, immigrants and city dwellers, while counting four million affluent whites twice. The extra effort paid off. The new census missed just three million people, and it cut the undercount of minorities virtually in half.

WILLIAM BARRON: The census was not only an operational success but was also successful in improving coverage of the population and in reducing undercounts for some population groups. Significant reduction occurred in the undercount rates for non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanics.

MARGARET WARNER: But based on an intensive mini census the Bureau says it still missed an estimated 1% of the population and still had a much greater undercount rate among Blacks and Hispanics than among Whites. The stakes in any census are high. Politically, the official figures determine how many seats a state gets in Congress and forms the basis for redrawing congressional districts and other political boundaries within a state. Financially, the figures determine the allocation of some $200 billion a year in federal grants to states and localities, for everything from education to highways. Many big cities, like Chicago and Los Angeles, are lost hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid because of previous undercounts. But redressing the undercount is controversial. In the past, census officials have proposed using a technique called sampling in which the same mini census used to determine who was missed is then used to adjust the official figures. Most Democrats have endorsed sampling as a way to reflect the country’s diverse make-up for accurately.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Some of our most vulnerable populations routinely are omitted when it comes time to providing federal funds for critical services. An inaccurate census distorts our understanding of the needs of our people and in many respects, therefore, it diminishes the quality of life not only for them but for all the rest of us, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: But most Republicans have opposed sampling as a bogus method.

REP. DAN MILLER: Why stand up and be counted when you can sit down and be sampled? Of course ultimately, this issue will end up back in the courts. I firmly believe that sampling for redistricting is as illegal as sampling for apportionment and that the Supreme Court was clear in this regard.

MARGARET WARNER: In 1999, the Supreme Court had settled one part of the issue, ruling that sampling adjusted figures could not be used to apportion seats in Congress. But it left the door open for other uses, like redrawing congressional districts within a state and allocating federal funds. Late last year, then President Clinton ordered that the Census Bureau director, a nonpartisan civil servant, should decide whether to adjust the 200 census figures through sampling. But the Bush administration reversed that order, saying the census… census director’s boss, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans. Today the Census Bureau in a written statement, they recommended to Evans that he not use sampling to adjust the Bureau’s official figures for the purpose of redistricting. In a memo to Evans, acting Census Director William Barons, said the Bureau “was unable, based on the data and other information currently available, to conclude that the adjusted data are more accurate for use in redistricting.” Secretary Evans is widely expected to concur. His decision to due by Monday.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, two views on today’s recommendation from two members of the of the House Government Reform Committee’s census subcommittee. The chairman, Republican Dan Miller of Florida, and Democrat Danny Davis of Illinois. Welcome, Congressmen. 
Congressman Davis, starting with you, your reaction to today’s recommendation.

REP. DANNY DAVIS: Well, I’m disappointed. I had hoped that the professionals would have recommended that we use sampling or that we use the adjusted figures, especially with entitlement activity. Now, we know the Supreme Court had already said that we couldn’t use that kind of information when it comes to apportionment. But when we deny the opportunity for local communities to get every dime to which they are entitled, then we actually take bread out of the mouths of the poorest people in our country. And so I’m disappointed, but I still hope that the Secretary, you know, who can override this recommendation and can still make the decision based upon what he determines, and I’m hoping that he will decide that he can still use adjusted numbers for the entitlement activity that is so greatly needed by people throughout our country.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Miller, I know you agree with this recommendation. Are you surprised by it?

REP. DAN MILLER: Well, a little surprised, but very pleased by that recommendation. You know, we had a very, very successful census, probably the most successful census in the history of our country. And to try to adjust it was a risky scheme, and I’m really pleased that the professionals at the Bureau, that everybody said, “let’s rely on the professionals,” came up with the recommendations today, “let’s not adjust.” We have a good census, let’s congratulate the Bureau, let’s pat them on the back, say, “good job, well done.” And let’s move ahead and start using the unadjusted numbers and these should be released here in the next couple of weeks.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Davis, the Bureau did say that it could not guarantee or prove that using sampling would result in a more accurate count. Isn’t it hard to quarrel with that…or is it hard to quarrel with that?

REP. DANNY DAVIS: Well, I don’t think we’re looking for any absolute guarantees, but I think most professionals throughout the country recognize sampling as a normal way of trying to get as definitive as you can get when you can’t do the actual count. Now, we knew that people were going to be missed, no matter how good an effort we put forth, and we did. The Census Bureau did an outstanding job in terms of the effort to count all of the people, much better than the last time. And so we only missed three million people, but can you imagine how much in the way of resource that’s going to mean to three million of the neediest people in our country — big cities like Chicago that have lots of homeless, helpless, hopeless people who were not counted but still need the services, children who need the money. And so I think that we would have done ourselves a great service to have adjusted the numbers, come up with the closest that we could and get those resources in there to people who need them.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Miller, let’s shift to the impact. Now, the Bureau says these new… their recommendation really only applies to figures used in redrawing congressional and other boundaries. Do you agree with Congressman Davis that it will also, though, affect the allocation of federal funds?

REP. DAN MILLER: Well, we should use the most accurate numbers. And so there’s no reason why we should use less accurate numbers even for the funding issue. So I don’t think there’s much doubt. Why would we want to advocate using less accurate numbers? And that’s what the Bureau is saying. The most accurate set of numbers we know right now are the actual head count. So I don’t think there’s much of a decision there to make.

MARGARET WARNER: But just to be clear about the impact of today’s ruling, are you saying that even though it doesn’t say it applies to federal fund allocation, that the practical effect will be that, if they’re not going to use adjusted figures for anything else, they’re probably not going to use them for allocating funds.

REP. DAN MILLER: You know, there’s constitutional legal issues. As far as money issues, Congress can do what it wants n that one, but I believe also for Constitutional and legal purposes, you’ve got to use the unadjusted numbers. But you know, there’s always a possibility Congress could change that. But right now we’ve got to use the most accurate number. Why would we use less accurate data and so it’s hard to justify using less accurate numbers.

MARGARET WARNER: What about the point Congressman Davis raises, though, that there were people that weren’t counted. Do you agree that people were missed, and if so, does the government have a responsibility somehow to make amends for that, to make up for that?

REP. DAN MILLER: Well, I mean we did miss some people. It’s hard to have with a perfect census. We counted 99%, approximately. 99%’s is pretty darn good census. We talk about this money and I know Mr. Davis talking about Chicago and my area of Sarasota — Brayton, Florida. The area that money flows there. But it’s a zero-sum gain. We see all this money that’s lost, but the bottom line is it’s a zero-sum gain. If Chicago gets more money, it’s going to come from somewhere else. Everybody thinks they’re going to lose all this money and that’s kind of an inaccurate description of what happens because this was such an accurate census, even if they adjusted it, it would have a very little impact on the money issue. >

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Davis, what about the impact on redistricting, on redrawing the congressional districts within states? Does the impact there concern you?

REP. DANNY DAVIS: Well, it does concern me, but it does not concern me as much. I mean you can figure out the politics of situations. But how do you tell a senior citizen who needs a Meal on Wheels program that you can’t get it because you didn’t get counted, or how do you tell a two-year-old child that you can’t get day care or early childhood education because you weren’t counted? Now, we know that you’re only 1% of the population, but you still can’t get these services because you were not counted. And I think adjustment would just make all of the sense in the world because then you’re not leaving anybody behind. I mean President Bush just said the other night, “let’s not leave any child behind.” Now we know that we’re going to leave some children not only behind, but we’re going to leave them out all together, and we’re going to say it’s okay because this is the best that we could do. I think we can do better. I think we could adjust the numbers and make sure that everybody is in and nobody is out.

MARGARET WARNER: You heard what your colleague here said, that Congress could do whatever it wanted in allocation of federal funds.

REP. DANNY DAVIS: Well, we would certainly hope that that would be the will of Congress, but you know, we have some fears when we look at what’s happening, and I’m just from the school that says if you show me early, then I believe that you’re going to do it.


REP. DAN MILLER: We have to use the most accurate numbers, and so it would be a terrible mistake, you know, to try to use less accurate numbers. So I don’t think we have much of a choice here. I mean the experts, and we’ve heard Mr. Davis and the other members in the panel say, “let’s trust the experts at the Census Bureau.” I think we need to have an independent review in the national academy of signs has a panel. It’s going to take them a year to come up with their recommendations. So we’re going to see what they recommend in a year, and I think that’s the really critical type of analysis we need. But we need the to use the most accurate numbers, and the most accurate numbers are the actual head counts. The real enumeration as called for in our Constitution.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Davis, does the fact that the Census Bureau did manage to really improve its performance from 1990 to 20,000 suggest to you that it is possible to get to the point in which using the actual enumeration method would in fact count virtually everyone and count all ethnic and other kinds of populations evenly?

REP. DANNY DAVIS: Well, we’re getting better and better and better at it, and I certainly just commend Dr. Prewitt and the Bureau.

MARGARET WARNER: The former director.

REP. DANNY DAVIS: But the reality is that there are some people who are just very difficult to count. There are some people who are untouchable, unreachable, people who live in homeless shelters, people who live in shelters for battered women and children, people who walk the streets. But yet they have needs, and they impact the environments of their community. So we should put the resources there so that we can help change the attitudes of people, people who are undocumented and who are afraid that the immigration authorities are going to be on their case. And so we have all of these people who, for whatever the reasons are, are unwilling to give the information. And I don’t think there is any way the Census Bureau can get that information at this time.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Congressmen both, we have to leave it there. Thanks very much.