Millions of people nationwide will receive a form from the U.S. Census Bureau in the next few weeks, asking them to respond and "Be Counted" as part of Census 2000. According to a Penn State expert on population studies, the decision to return that form or discard it with the junk mail does have a direct impact on each person's state, community and family.
Gordon DeJong, distinguished professor of sociology and demography and a member of the Population Research Institute at Penn State, said the census is necessary to measure population growth and properly allocate federal funds. But it is also likely to have an important effect on Pennsylvania politics.
For starters, DeJong estimates that the Commonwealth will lose two members of the U.S. House of Representatives, a body composed and adjusted solely by the results of the census every 10 years.
"We are a representative democracy, and the whole foundation of our country is that we allocate representatives at the state, local and national levels based on the size and distribution of our population," said DeJong in a recent interview on Penn State's public broadcasting show "Take Note."
"Undoubtedly, Pennsylvania will lose two representatives in Congress, and there will likely be representation changes in the State House," he said. "Southeastern Pennsylvania is gaining population, while western and northern Pennsylvania continue to lose population. So we should expect commensurate shifts in representation, and to the extent that this overlaps Democratic and Republican strongholds it will likely have impact there as well."
In addition to political alignment, the distribution of funds for government programs is based in part on population. This is especially important in urban areas where undercounting is common and federal money is most needed. Even an undercount of only 1 percent, which Pennsylvania experienced in 1990, equaled about 120,000 citizens and resulted in an estimated loss of $750 million in federal funds to the state over the past decade.
In an effort to boost the accuracy of Census 2000, the government has launched a $100 million advertising campaign to educate the public on the purpose of the census and encourage people to respond. For the approximately 30 percent of the population who choose not to respond -- even though all citizens are required to by law -- Census Bureau representatives will be sent to the homes of non-respondents to manually conduct the survey.
The Census Bureau is certain that this year's count will yield much more accurate and informative results than the much-criticized 1990 census. DeJong, while emphasizing the civic responsibility to answer the census and the importance of reducing the undercount, is less optimistic about the results.
"The 2000 census methodology will not be that different from 1990," he said. "In the face of an increase in the population of people that are harder to count, and because there's been a lot more mobility that has taken place over the past decade, you can't really expect a marked improvement in the undercount."
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