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VIEWPOINTS: Count everyone by modern methods
Gilbert F. Casellas
The Miami Herald
December 11, 1998

Here was an important lesson about the coming census in last month's meteor storm. Meteorites sweeping in 44 miles per second posed a real threat to the hundreds of satellites now circling the planet. But scientists had predicted the storm, and their early warning allowed satellite managers to move and protect their vulnerable hardware. The result? No damage.

The U.S. census is also a kind of early-warning system. Its figures are used to determine school aid, where to build roads and hospitals, and what the boundaries should be for election districts.

However, the census has become embroiled in a fight that threatens its effectiveness. And no state will be hurt more than Florida.

We must remember the 1990 census: It was a disaster. The Census Bureau acknowledges that it missed 8.4 million people and counted 4.4 million others twice.

Whom did it miss? Children, the poor, people of color, and city dwellers. Whom did it count twice? The wealthy people with two homes, for example, who got a form at each home and, forgetful but conscientious, mailed in both.

This was especially devastating in multicultural states such as Florida. The census missed more than 258,000 Floridians 1.8 percent of Asian Americans, 2.7 percent of Native Americans, 4 percent of African Americans, and 5.3 percent of Hispanics. Hialeah had the fifth-largest undercount among major U.S. cities. Miami had the third-largest; the census missed about 19,000 Miamians.

Chagrined by this failure, the Bush administration went to the National Academy of Sciences to recommend a solution. The academy recommended a combination of traditional "enumeration" and modern statistical methods.

That's when the fight began. Urged on by House Republican leaders who are unnecessarily paranoid over what a scientific census would do to their numbers in Congress, opponents have set out to block the plan. I find this infuriating.

After all, you don't have to look at statistics to see the inadequacies of the old system. You just have to live in a neighborhood such as my mother-in-law's up in New York's South Bronx. Census takers have to be buzzed into her building. When or if they get inside, they'll find many people not home or asleep because they work night shifts or two jobs. They'll find new immigrants staying with friends and others just moving. There is no way that the old measures can come up with an accurate count for my mother-in-law's building, not to mention hundreds of other Hispanic communities across America.

On Nov. 30 the Supreme Court heard arguments. It is important for everyone especially those in the Hispanic community - to urge those in Congress to accept the Census Bureau's plan. Here's why:

It's good science. Sampling was once an inexact science, but it has come a long way. The advent of new statistical methods and advances in computers make it accurate and reliable. For this reason the National Academy of Science's plan arrived at three distinguished panels of demographers, statisticians, and other experts has been widely commended. The Republican fight is not with the Democrats but with the scientists.

It's fair. Republicans say that if the old ways were good enough for ancient Rome and the Washington administration - they should be good enough now. But President George Washington didn't have to contend with a nation of 260 million people 65 million of them moving every year. The new plan is the only plan on the table that eliminates the undercount.

It's good politics even for Republicans. The lesson of last November's elections is that the candidates who preach policies of exclusion hurt only themselves.

While House Republicans fear that most of the undercounted populations, including Hispanics, would likely be Democrats, they would be smart to follow the lead of some of their newly elected governors, including Florida's own Jeb Bush and his brother George in Texas, by trying to win the support of these Americans rather than denying their existence.

Gilbert F. Casellas is a member of the bipartisan U.S. Census Monitoring Board and former Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He grew up in Tampa.

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