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Number grubbing when it counts.

Number grubbing when it counts

ECONOMISTS ARE OFTEN REFERRED to as number grubbers, bean counters and pencil pushers. That's because we're often confused with accountants, but even these dry personalities are positively scintillating compared to the mathematical man of the hour - actually of the decade - the decennial census taker.

Like death and taxes, the census taker is a periodic national certainty. Once every 10 years he emerges blinking into the light from his home in the basement of the U.S. Commerce Department and goes about his methodical best to count every man, woman and child in America. Officially, he'll knock on your door the first of next month, but unofficially he's already rooting around in the national undergrowth trying to pinpoint those who might not be in on April Fool's Day.

Although he doesn't show up often, the census taker is one of the oldest ledgermen in the government. The mandate for the "Count," as he's known to his many helpers, can be found in Article 1, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution. He was told to go out and check multiplication by the Founding Fathers to determine how many representatives from each state were entitled to deduct Washington condominiums on their tax returns.

Actually, antecedents go back at least to the "Doomsday" book compiled by the early English kings. In early England, however, the Count counted more than just people. He also was responsible for determining the investory of the social infrastructure. This included how many pigs, cows, horses, carts and crops each peasant had available for delivery to the Crown.

Thus, he was first to give statistical meaning to the phrase "I'm from the government, I'm here to help you." In fact, until just past the midpoint of the 20th Century, you might say the Count represent "pork" to the politician, and "no pork" to the peasant.

But things have changed. The Count is now invited in to even the most modest American abode. Three little words changed him from an unwelcome pest to a sought-after community guest: federal revenue sharing. More than $30 billion in federal funds are now distributed to state and local governments according to formulas derived from census data. Consequently, everybody - and I mean every body - counts when the Count comes to town. This makes for some amazing programs you probably haven't heard about. Take, for example, "S Night" on March 20.

Everyone knows that no one cares about the homeless or they wouldn't be homeless, right? Wrong! At least once every 10 years they represent cash-on-the-shopping-cart to the communities they wander around in, if they can only be counted. To do this, local census takers are going to descend on every known homeless location and count heads. During "street enumeration," according to Census Department guidelines, sleeping persons will not be awakened to answer questions. Instead, enumerators will estimate as best they can the person's age, sex and race.

There's potential for irony here, to say the least. Each identifiable body is worth about 60 bucks in additional federal funding, and the identification process doesn't appear to be particularly rigorous. Consequently, communities have every incentive and opportunity to overcount like crazy. Civic pride has always minimized the homeless problem; after March 20, civic pocketbooks are going to revel in it.

I predict more homeless are going to be found in the 1990 census than dead voters in a presidential election, all of them unknowingly earning money for municipalities which ignore them. Who said these people don't count?

Andrew Safir is president of RECON Research Corp., a Los Angeles-based economic consulting and advisory firm with clients in Alaska.
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Title Annotation:economic aspects of the census
Author:Safir, Andrew
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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