TOPICS > Politics

Number Crunching

August 25, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Yesterday a federal court added the latest twist to the problem of counting Americans. Betty Ann Bowser reports.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It was a hot summer morning at the community health clinic on Houston’s teeming southwest side. Sixty-three thousand patients came here last year–most of them poor–with no medical insurance–many of them new immigrants.

JIM WATTERS: There are about sixty stars up there and people have come from all of these countries to this clinic, primarily from countries in Central America and Latin America, including Mexico, but also from Africa, Asia, Europe, and literally all over the world.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: People in these neighborhoods frequently don’t speak English. Sometimes they are suspicious of anything to do with government. So it’s not surprising that the U.S. Census has a history of being unable to count everybody in this part of town. Jim Watters runs the clinic.

JIM WATTERS: There is an element of fear based upon sometimes where they have come from and the conditions under which they’ve come here. And secondly there’s an element of fear because of their status–of them being undocumented, they’re fearful of what the government may do to them.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What do you think that’s going to do when they go to take the census?

JIM WATTERS: It’s pretty apparent what it’s going to do. People are not going to be tremendously cooperative. They’re going to be invisible. They’re going to not answer the questions correctly. If you’ve got ten or twelve or thirteen people living in an apartment, they’re going to not let you know that there are that many people living there.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Census information is used to determine how much federal money cities like Houston get. The city, in turn, uses that same data to decide where to put health clinics like this one. Census data is also used to determine how many seats an area gets in the House of Representatives. So when people aren’t correctly counted, the results can have a number of implications. Uncounted Americans are a problem all over the country, but they’re especially problematic in Houston with its massive urban sprawl and huge mobile immigrant population. The Census Bureau says it missed an estimated 66,000 people in 1990, almost 4 per cent of the city’s population. People who are missed make up what’s called the undercount. Stephen Klineberg is a sociologist who’s been studying the demographics of Houston for 11 years.

STEPHEN KLINEBERG, Rice University: The Asian community’s the most rapidly growing. Many are upper middle class doctors from India and computer engineers from China. Many others are refugees and the largest refugee resettlement program in American history that brought the Vietnamese boat people, the survivors of the killing fields of Cambodia, the Hmong tribesmen from northern Laos often with very few skills, with no command of English and coming at a very rapid rate.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Many of those least likely to be found are people from Southeast Asia came to Houston because its hot humid climate reminded them of home. Thousands settled in low rise apartment complexes vacated by the white middle class after the oil bust of the 1980’s. This one is called Thai Xuan Village, a condo project that’s beginning to show its age. Almost no one here speaks English. So for the next two years Steven Hoang, a retired doctor from Vietnam, will visit places like Thai Xuan Village in and around Houston to teach people about the census in hopes of increasing the turnout. Recently, he told residents of Thai Xuan how the census would work and promised them that their answers would stay confidential and not be shared with the Internal Revenue Service or the Immigration & Naturalization Service. He also explained that the census here is very different from the one taken in Communist Vietnam, where belongings were counted.

STEVEN HOANG, Census Bureau: They come from house to house and count everything, whatever more than supposed to own, they confiscate-

BETTY ANN BOWSER: They confiscated their personal belongs?

STEVEN HOANG: Yes, their belongings, and people scared to death when they heard about census.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Once people heard Hoang’s presentation they indicated they would be willing to participate in Census 2000. But it was a different story when Hoang visited Asian food stores and tried to talk to people at random. He got a series of refusals when he asked people to talk to the NewsHour about the census.

STEVEN HOANG: Asian people very private. They keep things for themselves. They don’t want to share with anybody because they don’t believe anybody can help them.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The reluctance to participate in the census worries Mary Des Vignes- Kendrick. She’s director of the Houston Health Department.

MARY DES VIGNES-KENDRICK: If we really don’t know where individuals are in our community, what the numbers are projecting and we’re spending our money in this part of town because there are people are maybe telling us that they have a problem. And if we are not out there on a regular basis and seeing it with our own eyes, then we may, number one, be unaware that we have a problem in a certain area where we have high risk groups and we know that poverty, socioeconomic, other factors will make a difference.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The problem became very real when the Health Department received anecdotal reports of tuberculosis in Houston. Harris County officials wanted to do a study on the problem but couldn’t get the money because official 1990 Census figures showed the at-risk population wasn’t big enough. The city health Department’s chief planner, Peggy Rogers is frustrated when she has to depend on imperfect data to do the critical job of matching resources with needs.

PEGGY ROGERS: At one point we were tracking what started as a fairly minor measles outbreak. It did grow quite a bit larger simply because we didn’t have a handle on where all of the children were at the time so that we could get mobile teams to go out there and immunize those kids very quickly.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The undercount is nothing new. As far back as 1940 officials discovered that minorities were more likely to be missed by the census than whites. But it wasn’t until 1990 that the census was less accurate than its predecessor in 1980. Minority groups bitterly complained that inaccurate numbers meant less political power and less federal money was going to their communities. So this time around the Clinton administration wants to use statistical sampling in addition to the traditional head count. The president recently visited Houston to promote a controversial plan that would combine sampling with the traditional method.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Some of our most vulnerable population 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.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Des Vignes-Kendrick supports the president’s plan.

MARY DES VIGNES-KENDRICK: If the bottom line is getting as accurate a count of what we have in the community, no matter what your political affiliation, the accurate number will let you know what you have within the community and then you could look at where you go from there.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But a group of Republicans in the House of Representatives didn’t agree and sued the Commerce Department. Yesterday a three-judge federal court sided with those Republicans and ruled sampling was unconstitutional. The debate is also reflected in Houston, where Gary Polland, the chairman of the Harris County Republican Party.

GARY POLLAND: I think whenever you have a political entity controlling a process that should be objective you have the opportunity for abuse. So when you sample, you use a formula. The formula you use depends on who makes it and whoever makes that formula can build in abuses or benefits for one side or the other. So as a Republican with the Democrats in charge I have real concerns about sampling because I think we’re not going to be treated fairly.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Republicans Robert Eckels, who is a Harris County commissioner, agrees that sampling invites misuse.

ROBERT ECKELS: When you start doing statistical sampling, you open yourself up for whether it was the Republicans or the Democrats, it’s not a partisan issue to me, you open yourself up to manipulating the numbers. The proper way is to properly count very individual.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Clinton administration says it will take its case for sampling all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, so it may be next spring before the Commerce Department knows how to proceed. That could leave the department with less than a year to plan a $4 billion operation that must hire nearly 300,000 people to count the American population in the year 2000.