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Friday, June 26, 1998
Kenneth Blackwell

Sense and the Census

A partisan war is under way on Capitol Hill over the 2000 census . Democrats want to use statistical sampling techniques to compensate for undercounting, especially of minorities, that has characterized past censuses. Republicans believe that nothing but a conventional head count will satisfy the constitutional mandate of an "actual enumeration."

The unconscionable part about using statistical methods is that real people who fill out census questionnaires would necessarily be subtracted from the census to round out the calculations. But missing people through an inefficient enumeration also seems unconscionable.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. The Census Bureau should use administrative forms to fill in gaps in the census . Filed with government agencies that administer public programs, such records offer generally up-to-date information such as name, address, Social Security number, age, race and sex.

There is a precedent. The 1990 census added about 1.3 million people to the rolls using parole and probation records. This is a substantial number: The net undercount in the 1990 census is estimated at four million.

Another substantial increase in coverage would come from using Medicaid records. Children under 18 represented 52% of the undercount in 1990. As of 1996, Medicaid had records on 18.3 million people 20 and under. Many of these young people are in the hard-to-count populations: low-income minorities in
dense urban areas. It doesn't take a mathematician to figure out that a single mother struggling to make ends meet might not have time to sit down and fill out a census form. But she will take time to enter similar information on a Medicaid form, because that's time spent on her children's health.

This is a common- sense solution that shouldn't be obscured by bureaucracy, tied up with red tape or shouted down by partisan opposition. Most Americans don't care about partisanship -- they care about what works.


Mr. Blackwell is co-chairman of the U.S. Census Monitoring Board and treasurer of Ohio.

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