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1990 census: the politics of undercount

By JOHN CAMPER


Some people believe government pays too much attention to minorities. Its affirmative action programs give minorities preference in jobs and contracts. Its poverty programs benefit minorities disproportionately, in urban areas at least. And its schools spend millions to instruct ethnic minorities in literally scores of languages.

But government is settling the score this year, unintentionally perhaps, through the decennial census. The census is sure to undercount minorities particularly those who are poor, transient or undereducated. And in Illinois the impact will be felt most severely in the place with the most minorities Chicago. Demographers believe the census figures will show Chicago and other big cities to be about 5 percent smaller than they really are.

It's just a whole lot easier to count white. middle-class residents of, say, Naperville, than poor minorities in Chicago. Middle-class people understand the census form and are more likely to send it in than the poor. If they forget, it's no sweat sending a census taker around to their house.

Minorities aren't always able to read the form. If they can, they may be suspicious of government and why it wants all that information. They may be in this country illegally. If somebody is living with them who doesn't belong there, they aren't likely to list him or her on their census form. If the form isn't returned, no census taker is eager to go into those neighborhoods to pay a personal call.

That is why a group of cities, including Chicago, sued the federal government to adjust the census results to compensate for the undercount.

On its face, it sounds ridiculous to spend millions on a detailed nose count and then throw in a fudge factor to make up for people you might have missed. But the fact is that the census, itself, is an estimate, based on complicated statistical models that I don't understand and neither do you. When we see a number as precise as 226,542,203, the official population of the United States in 1980, we tend to assume that census workers actually observed all those people and counted them. But that's clearly impossible. The Census Bureau takes as much information as it can get and then fills in the gray areas.

The Census Bureau has offered to consider an adjustment for minorities, but only under a set of conditions that make one unlikely. For example, it said the statistical model used in the adjustment has to be better than all other possible models. And it said it would have to take into account the possible disruption of reapportionment before it agreed to adjust anything.

Illinois could provide the bureau with a good excuse not to adjust. The bureau doesn't expect to complete any adjustment until July 15, 1991. Yet the legislature is to redistrict itself by June 30, 1991, or the state Constitution calls for a special commission to do it.

The Census Bureau says its objections to an adjustment are scientific, but big city mayors believe they are political. Because most minorities live in the cities, an adjustment would mean that cities would get a bigger share of the state and federal aid that is distributed on a per capita basis. In other words, Democratic areas would get more money at the expense of Republican areas.

A census adjustment also could mean more political power for blacks and Hispanics in the Chicago City Council, the Illinois legislature and the U.S. Congress.

If the Census Bureau adjusted its count for minorities, it wouldn't simply add

46/July 1990/Illinois Issues


several thousand to the population of Chicago. It would create or "impute" statistical people and put them in specific census tracts. I know that sounds strange, but remember, the Census Bureau has been doing that for decades. In 1980 it imputed 130,000 people and put them in Florida. If the bureau increases the number of Hispanics on Chicago's near northwest and southwest sides, it could make it easier to carve the Hispanic congressional district that activists want. (Politically, though, it's hard to do that without causing problems for incumbents such as William Lipinski, Cardiss Collins and Dan Rostenkowksi.) At the state legislative level, an adjustment would make it easier for Democrats to retain control of both houses of the legislature. More minorities in inner-city Chicago means more solid Democratic districts. That gives the Democrats a larger base to build on when they extend their outer-city districts into the suburbs to lap up Republican strength.

And a minority adjustment could speed up the darkening of the complexion of the City Council. The Chicago Reporter recently applied 1988 population estimates from the Chicago Planning Department to the city's 50 wards and discovered the number of wards in which non-Hispanic whites are a minority had increased from 24 to 29.

The current council has 27 whites, 19 blacks and four Hispanics. (The 5th Ward has a majority of blacks but is represented by a white alderman, Larry Bloom.) But whites won't necessarily become a minority on the 50-member council, even though they make up only 42 percent of the city's population.

For one thing, we don't know whether the Census Bureau's figures will match the planning department's. Also, whites are more likely to vote than blacks and Hispanics. Finally, the effects of reapportionment aren't likely to be felt on the City Council until the 1995 election.

Aldermanic candidates run for four-year terms next February, two months before the census figures are due to be delivered. Unless the courts intervene, the council will operate for half the decade under the old ward boundaries. It's really nobody's fault, but it's another way minorities get shafted.

John Camper is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

July 1990/Illinois Issues/47


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