Inside the Capitol

Monday, September 10, 2007

Stealth Census Probes Deeply


Syndicated Columnist

      SANTA FE -- Ten years ago, the 2000 census had been a major news topic already for more than two years. This time around, most of us haven't given it a thought. But many Americans are about to be giving the census much more attention.

      For the past two years, the Census Bureau has been sending 1 in 40 Americans a 67-question monthly survey. Few people are complaining so there has been little publicity. Unofficially, it is being called a stealth census.

   The first results of those surveys are about to be released, so we may be hearing more about the stealth census soon.

      The census has been a big headache for the past 20 years or so. The problem is undercounting. Every since the first census in 1790, national leaders have known there are people out there who aren't getting counted.

      And that's a big deal to members of Congress and to every state and local official in the nation. You see, Congress reapportions itself after every census. The members of the House of Representatives remain at a constant 435, divided proportionally by state.

      And therein comes the rub. Every time a census is taken, some states gain representatives in Congress -- and other states lose. All those states close to either gaining or losing a member of Congress want to make darn sure the count is as close to fair and accurate as it can be.

      It is important to a growing state like New Mexico because having an additional member of Congress means more representation, plus one more person to bring home goodies from Uncle Sam.

      A fair and accurate census count also is important to municipalities and counties because a lot of federal money is distributed on the basis of population.

      Countless solutions have been tried to achieve a more complete count. The 1980 census hired thousands of additional workers to scour street corners and alleys to count the homeless. People who live in the country were given street addresses to make them easier to pinpoint.

      But there were still too many uncounted. So in 1990, computers were brought to the rescue. Washington wizards somehow figured out a way to estimate how many people they miss. That formula then was applied to the actual count from the census takers and resulted in something called the statistical estimate.

      It shouldn't take much imagination to picture the controversy that resulted. Lawsuits, brought by the losers disadvantaged by the statistical count, argued that the Constitution doesn't allow computerized corrections.

      The 2000 census managed to get many problems ironed out. So now the census bureau is busying itself with providing more information. Those of you who have received the "long" census form in the past realize that no longer is the government just counting people. It is putting us into innumerable categories.

      At first those categories were designed to target federal money to those in need of additional governmental services, such as minorities, the poor, children and the elderly.

   Those categories are important to a state like New Mexico because we have more people in needy categories than any other state. Thus our state receives the most dollars back per dollar we pay in federal taxes. And since such categories are the most undercounted, New Mexico has the biggest stake in as complete a count as possible.

   Recently the government has been adding many more categories into which it pigeonholes us. First, new categories were added to help local governments decide where to put schools, roads, stores, hospitals and restaurants. Then additional categories were designed to describe local populations to those who wanted to start a business.

   So now, we no longer will have a 53-question "long" form, It will be an even longer American Community Survey, designed to learn even more about us.

   Not everyone is happy with all the prying. Some will consider it an invasion of privacy. The Census Bureau says America is changing and we need a yearly survey to keep with those changes.

FRI, 9-21-07


JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505

(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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