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Wednesday, September 16, 1998
Kenneth Blackwell

Clinton's Census Chicanery

A federal district court decided unanimously in August that a federal law means what it says: Statistical sampling is illegal in the 2000 census. End of story, right?

Wrong. In what has become a tired pageant, Clinton administration officials and allies are telling the American people that the court is wrong, the majority of Congress is wrong, and the Constitution is wrong.

The U.S. Supreme Court will have the last word as early as next month. Meanwhile, the Clinton forces are deployed to defend the indefensible.

We've seen Clinton's tactics before: Word games that strain legal definition; attacks on officers of the court; refusal to comply with the law.

Former Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher chose not to use sampling - estimating population counts based on statistical projections - to adjust the '90 census because the data were unreliable. The Supreme Court agreed with his reasoning in '96. The White House's census plan calls for a bigger, more complicated, untested sampling plan. Now, with the federal court's ruling last month, the plan is both unreliable and illegal.

The '90 census came up short by a net undercount of more than 4 million people, missing a larger proportion of minorities than whites. Those problems demand solutions. There are practical alternatives to sampling that will improve the way we count all Americans.

These alternatives have been used successfully in other countries and in the American census. Why haven't they been expanded upon here? Because the White House has directed all census resources to its sampling scheme.

The U.S. can learn something from Great Britain and Canada. Those countries use administrative data -such as medical records - to fill gaps in their census counts. As of '96, Medicaid had the names and addresses of more than 18 million people aged 20 and under, many of whom are most at-risk to be missed: Children in low-income homes in densely populated urban areas.

Common sense tells us that a single working mother might not have time to sit down and fill out a census form. But she will make time to fill out a Medicaid form to take care of a baby with a fever. Both forms have data the census needs: name, address, gender and race.

Why waste time and taxpayer dollars on an unreliable method the courts have outlawed? Why not use information that's already at hand?

Last time, the Census Bureau used another set of administrative records - parole and probation files - to find over 1 million people. That was a good start. But it didn't use all the resources available. The Justice Department had more than 3 million people on file that year, many of whom certainly went uncounted.

The federal judges' ruling on the White House plan noted that the legal argument in favor of sampling depended on a ''strained and incorrect'' interpretation of sentence structure. The White House responded by attacking the judges' understanding of the law. Clearly, Clinton's Census Bureau intends to ignore the court's injunction and move forward with sampling.

Time and money spent defending an illegal, unreliable plan like sampling is time and money diverted from a legal, practical solution such as using administrative records. If sampling's boosters truly care about improving the census - particularly the way we count minority populations - they'll cease and desist their strategy of delay and deny.

J. Kenneth Blackwell is Ohio's state treasurer and co-chairman of the U.S. Census Monitoring Board.

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