Gloom Greets Decision on Census Undercount


Not again, Southern California leaders groaned Friday as they absorbed the Census Bureau's recommendation against nudging its 2000 head count upward to factor in more than 3 million overlooked Americans.

As it did in the 1990s, the region may lose hundreds of dollars in federal funds if Congress and the Bush administration accept the recommendation and extend it beyond the realm of election redistricting.

William Gayk, director of Cal State Fullerton's Center for Demographic Research, said the local cost of the decision won't be known until census details are released, and areas can compare undercounts.

"Until then, it's just purely speculation," Gayk said.

Santa Ana officials agreed, saying they have no idea how much the community will lose in federal funding as a result of the unadjusted figures. All they know is that the final difference could be significant.

"For us, an adjusted count would mean more dollars for programs that rely heavily on federal funding. These programs will definitely be impacted, but it's difficult to say how much without any figures to plug in," said Manuel Gomez, assistant to the city manager.

Santa Ana has more than 315,000 residents and is home to more than 222,000 Latinos, about 71% of the city population. The city also has a sizable Vietnamese community.

"It is estimated that in cities with demographics similar to ours, the undercount is about 3%. That's a lot of people, and it translates to a lot of lost revenue," he said.

Many demographics experts urged patience, saying that the bureau's memo, released Thursday, was preliminary and that federal funding formulas allow for significant flexibility.

But Los Angeles officials said the decision would be devastating for the city and the surrounding area.

"The census is so critical because it secures federal dollars for basic services," said City Councilman Mike Feuer, who heads the council's budget committee. "I know that sounds generic, but we're talking about programs that impact the quality of life, like meals for senior citizens, school lunches and whether kids have after-school programs."

If the original numbers stand, Southern California--and Los Angeles County in particular--will unquestionably rank high among the communities undercounted by the census.

The bureau conducts special field surveys to estimate how many people the general tally misses or records twice. Factoring in both, the Census Bureau has put the net national undercount for 2000 at 3.3 million, or 1.2%, down from 4 million, or 1.6%, in 1990.

More affluent, older whites are most likely to be double-counted; Latinos, African Americans and illegal immigrants--all with heavy concentrations in the Southland--are among those most likely to be overlooked.

"We're stuck in an awful spot," said Dowell Myers, director of the California Demographic Futures Project at USC. "The deficit is concentrated here, but spread thinly nationwide. The bureau is certain that L.A. was undercounted, but the people in Iowa are screaming, 'You can't be sure!' "

In 1990, Los Angeles was shorted by about 3.8%, or more than 153,000 residents. The 2000 undercount is unlikely to be that large, but the city could lose over $325 million in federal funds over 10 years if it were, officials say.

Of course, translating undercounts into lost state and federal dollars remains more guesswork than science, experts acknowledge.

A study conducted by PriceWaterhouseCoopers for the U.S. Census Monitoring Board concluded that Los Angeles County would receive about $1.8 billion less in federal funds from 2002 to 2012 if the original count stood. Riverside and San Bernardino counties would lose out on more than $200 million apiece.

But the PriceWaterhouseCoopers report projected a larger undercount than the Census Bureau expects and does not factor in rules changes that Congress may yet write for how federal program funds are distributed, said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a census consultant and expert on federal statistical issues.

Generally speaking, areas underestimated most dramatically lose up to 2% of what they would have received if adjusted figures were used, but the margin's significance is hard to pin down, said Eugene Ericksen, a Temple University professor who specializes in estimating the undercount.

"A lot of people exaggerate [the impact], but sometimes that last 1% to 2% becomes critical," he said.

The Census Bureau recommended adjusting the 1990 census but was blocked from doing so after a tense political battle that pitted state against state and even sparked bickering between urban and rural areas of individual states.

Times staff writer H.G. Reza contributed to this report.

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