Bureaucrats: The Public Be Damned

Commentary by Pete du Pont
Despite decisions by two separate lower federal courts that sampling is illegal in conducting the 2000 Census, the Clinton administration has said it still plans to use sampling, even if the Supreme Court finally agrees that it's illegal.

The Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, is taking the position that even though the courts have said sampling is illegal, that only applies in counting the population for the purpose of determining how many seats each state will get in the House of Representatives. So when it comes to drawing the boundaries of congressional, state and local legislative districts, Commerce officials say, they're going to use results of sampling, no matter how the Supreme Court rules.

How's that for arrogance?

All sides pretty well agree that the 1990 Census undercounted the population, and that probably more blacks, Hispanics and poorer people were missed in the count than whites and the non-poor.

The position of sampling opponents is that the Constitutional requirement that the Census be a direct enumeration of citizens really means just that. They say there are other things the Census Bureau can do in 2000 to deal with undercounting.

The Clinton administration is intent on sampling because of a belief that heavily Democratic areas will gain more of the previously uncounted people than Republican areas. If Democratic districts gain more population, that means more billions of federal dollars going into those districts - and maybe more Democratic congressional districts when the districts are redrawn. The same supposition probably accounts for some of the Republican opposition.

But aside from the legal question and the political jousting, there is far from unanimous agreement that sampling will produce a more accurate population count than a head-by-head enumeration. The technical problems surrounding sampling tend to get overlooked or minimized. Statisticians are a lot less confident than the Clinton administration that sampling will produce an accurate count. As William Kruskal, the former chairman of the statistics department at the University of Chicago, told Michael Weinstein of the New York Times, "no one really knows."

The Census Bureau proposes to sample by conducting a survey after the actual headcount and then using a complicated series of calculations to estimate who was missed. But how does the survey deal with people who move after the headcount? Or what happens if the samplers do a better job of locating missing people in one state than another, considering that this could affect each state's share of the national population and perhaps result in a shift of House seats from one state to another? Or how will the Census Bureau allocate the estimated additional population to smaller areas like census blocks? What happens when all the census blocks in a state don't add up to the total population for that state?

If the Clinton administration is really interested in a more accurate 2000 Census, there are ways other than sampling to go about it. J. Kenneth Blackwell, the Republican co-chairman of the Census Monitoring Board, points out that Medicaid has the names and addresses of more than 18 million people age 20 and under, mostly children from low-income urban homes, who might be missed. Blackwell also notes that parole and probation files turned up an additional one million people in the 1990 Census, but the Census Bureau also had access to Justice Department files on more than three million people, many of whom went uncounted.

Unfortunately, the Census imbroglio illustrates a "public be damned" attitude all too common among people who are supposed to be public servants. Their view instead is of the public as subjects. They know what ought to be done, and they're going to do it no matter what the law or the courts say.

If you think this is overstating the case, let me direct your attention to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's determination to release wolves in sections of Montana. People living where the wolves were to be released filed a lawsuit, but before a federal court could rule, Babbitt went ahead with the release. During arguments, the court told Babbitt it was possible it would rule against the release, and Babbitt responded that if that happened, he would have no choice but to have the wolves killed.

Yet after the court did indeed say the wolves had to be removed, Babbitt told an environmental group, "There will be no wolves removed on my watch." The wolves are still roaming in Montana while the Interior Department appeals the lower court's decision.

Maybe this offers a clue to the low voter turnout in U.S. elections. Based on what they see, a lot of voters must figure that it doesn't matter whether Republicans or Democrats get elected, because either way, the same bureaucrats will prevail.

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The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues.