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Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company
The New York Times

February 29, 1996, Thursday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section A; Page 16; Column 4; National Desk

LENGTH: 673 words

HEADLINE: In a First, 2000 Census Is to Use Sampling



To cut costs and improve accuracy, the Census Bureau said today that it would actually count only 90 percent of the United States population in 2000 and rely on statistical sampling methods to determine the number remaining.

The plans, announced at the Commerce Department, mean that for the first time the official tally of the American population, done every 10 years and used to apportion seats in the House of Representatives, will be based in part on a scientifically determined estimate rather than the actual head count conducted through a mass direct-mail campaign.

Census Bureau officials say the revised method is needed to keep costs down and to avoid a repeat of the 1990 census, which missed record numbers of people that had been traditionally hard to count, mainly members of ethnic and racial minorities.

"What we intend to do to meet our twin goals of reducing costs and increasing accuracy is to make a much greater use of widely accepted scientific statistical methods, and sampling is first and foremost among them," said Martha Farnsworth Riche, the Census Bureau Director.

Scientific sampling, commonly associated with public opinion polls, involves questioning a selected group of people and using the information derived from them to count or describe a much larger group. The Census Bureau has used sampling for years to determine national characteristics like the poverty and unemployment rates. But it has never used this method to determine the official population.

In 1990, the Government refused to adjust the census results to correct an acknowledged undercount of some four million people, mostly black and Hispanic residents of large cities. That refusal prompted a lawsuit by a coalition of big cities, led by New York. The case is pending before the Supreme Court.

Critics of the bureau's use of sampling argue that is is unconstitutional because the Constitution calls for an "actual enumeration." But decisions in lower Federal courts have approved the use of sampling as long as it supplements, and does not supplant, an actual count.

Census Bureau officials say sampling is needed because of the increasing number of people who fail to return their mail-in census forms. In 1990 only 63 percent of American households sent the form back, compared with 85 percent that did so in 1970, the first year the census was conducted by mail.

The Census Bureau has to send temporary enumerators to households that do not return the forms, sharply increasing the cost.

Officials say that in the 2000 census, mail-in forms and enumerators will be used until 90 percent of the households in a county have been counted. Then a statistical sample of 10 percent of the remaining households will be selected, and enumerators will be dispatched, repeatedly if necessary, to count them. The results will be used to estimate the total number of those who were originally missed.

"Better to hound one in 10 than 10 in 10," said Everett M. Ehrlich, Under Secretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs, who oversees the Census Bureau.

The bureau also plans to simply its forms, reducing the number of questions to about eight on the short form, down from 17 in 1990, and 55 on the long form, down from 59. The long form is sent to about one in every six households, and contains questions that provide a wealth of data for demographers, social scientists, marketers and governments.

In addition to mailing the forms, the bureau for the first time will allow people to pick them up at government buildings like libraries and police stations, as well as community centers and convenience stores. The bureau will set up a toll-free telephone number to allow people to call in their responses, and is also trying to determine if there is a way people can respond via the Internet and still keep the responses confidential.

Officials also plan to use new technology, including digital maps of every structure on every block in the country that will insure that the bureau does not overlook buildings.