The U.S. Census Bureau on Wednesday decided against using statistically adjusted census figures to disburse billions of federal dollars, foreshadowing a possible legal battle with Democrats and big-city mayors.
Census Bureau officials had been considering whether to rely simply on the raw head counts available now, or to statistically adjust the 2000 figures to account for the millions of minorities, children and poor people across the nation traditionally missed by the count.
Census officials, however, opted against modifying the figures when agency researchers discovered errors in census data that had been adjusted using sampling methods, acting Director William Barron said in a news conference Wednesday.
That leaves the raw figures from last year's national head count as the official data on which the government will base decisions to distribute more than $185 billion to states and local communities for Medicaid, foster care and other social service programs.
But critics, generally Democrats, say the raw numbers undercount minorities, children and the poor in cities such as Buffalo, which could affect the amount of federal funding flowing to the community in the next decade.
"This is an abysmal decision from a bureau whose mission is to count people accurately in this country," Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell said, adding that he would consider filing a lawsuit to obtain public release of the adjusted figures.
Buffalo officials could not be reached to comment on the Census Bureau decision. Earlier this year, city officials expressed serious doubts that the city's population dropped by 11 percent, to 292,648, during the 1990s, as the Census Bureau reported. Mayor Anthony M. Masiello had been considering options for challenging the population numbers.
But the Census Bureau's decision may not affect Buffalo's federal funding as much as first believed.
A report released last summer by a census watchdog group contended that Erie County would not lose federal funds because of the undercounts, and financial stakes in other metropolitan areas are much larger. It is larger urban areas, such as Bronx County, that would be most affected, according to the report by the Census Monitoring Board.
Moreover, there are other variables, such as poverty levels, considered when distributing funds to communities such as Buffalo.
A recommendation to Barron from a committee of career Census Bureau officials was the basis of his final decision Wednesday. Barron said that more research would be needed before determining whether there would be any public release of the adjusted data but did not say when such a decision would be made.
The bureau faced a similar decision in March, when it recommended against adjusted data as the basis for redrawing congressional, state and local political districts. There were too many discrepancies in the adjusted data, the actual count and a third survey used to measure accuracy, and not enough time for further analysis, Barron said at the time.
Several lawsuits already have been filed over the conduct of the census. One suit, filed by Oregon state senators, said adjusted data could account for about 43,000 people missed statewide.
Another dozen or so cities and counties have joined a lawsuit spearheaded by Los Angeles over the Census Bureau's initial decision to use the raw head count for redistricting.
Jessica Heinz, assistant city attorney for Los Angeles, said her office would consider another suit over Wednesday's announcement.
The use of adjusted numbers has long been the topic of partisan debate and legal battles.
Generally, Republican opponents contend that sampling would insert more errors into a 2000 census that already was better than the one in 1990, because of a lower net undercount nationwide. They have also said that while adjustment may count people originally missed, it may not place them in the correct neighborhoods.
In March, the bureau identified a net national undercount in 2000 of 1.2 percent of the country's 281 million people, or about 3.2 million. The 1990 undercount was 1.6 percent, or about 4 million.
Census officials have conducted more research since March, Barron said Wednesday. As a result, he said, preliminary estimates indicate that the net undercount could have been reduced to as low as .06 percent -- by far the lowest undercount in history.
Specifically, Wednesday's decision determined whether adjusted population counts would be used for purposes other than drawing new political boundaries. It affects 2000 census data yet to be released, as well as various other population estimates and surveys the Census Bureau conducts between once-a-decade head counts.
The results from many of those estimates and surveys are used in formulas that determine distribution of federal money to states and local communities.