Can "an incorporated place that is not a minor civil division" find financial fulfillment through a federal spending program "whose thrust is a countercyclical antirecessionary thrust?"

In other words, do towns with populations of fewer than 2,500 stand as good a chance as bigger burgs of getting a share of the $4 billion being allocated under the public works jobs program?

The answer is no, and the reason is that the federal government doesn't have unemployment statistics on towns of fewer than 2,500.

This enraged residents of small towns across the country. The Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration, which administers the public works funds, has a backlog of 700 letters from people such as Elaine Govern of Riceville, Iowa, who are wondering why.

Govern and other Riceville residents applied earlier this year for funding for a library under the public works jobs program. They were turned down.

The program is "an unemployment program, not a capital improvement program," according to a Commerce Department spokesman.

It is designed to "put construction workers to work, plain and simple," said another official.

The program is geared toward alleviating cyclical unemployment in urban areas, not the chronic or "structural" unemployment of towns such as Riceville, said George T. Karras, the Commerce Department's deputy assistant secretary for economic development.

"When you administer a $4 billion program, you've got to consider where the jobs are, which is often not where the projects are," he said.

To qualify for project money, then, unemplyment rates and numbers of unemployed of towns applying were figured first. A spokesman in the Denver EDA office said Riceville (population 877) was turned down as a "Code 2," meaning that "by the time they got down to Riceville, funds were gone, but the town's unemployment rate was higher than the state average."

Robert Meehan, a planning specialist for the EDA in Washington, had a different explanation.

Meehan, during a telephone interview, tried to look up the unemployment figures for Riceville.He couldn't find any.

"Since . . . Riceville didn't have any numbers, they wouldn't have gotten any money," he explained. And as an "incorporated place within a civil division," or a town within a township, "there is a Census Bureau population figure for them, but no unemployment or income-level figures unless they're over 2,500 in population."

But didn't Congress direct the Secretary of Commerce "to accept state money if federal figures were unavailable?

"Yes," said Meehan, "but the law said two other things. It said the secretary must assure that the data is 'comparable and valid,' and that the money must be disbursed by Sept. 30 of this year.

"We had to compromise between accuracy of data and time."

So Commerce decided to use Bureau of Labor Statistic, with their Ph.Ds, having spent years developing the census-share method (used in disbursing finds in this case), has all this but we don't care - we'll use a different method."

"It was a very technical problem with no much time and no way to rationalize other than to leave small towns out as far as their projects were concerned," said a Commerce official who asked not to be named.

"It was a conscious decision to leave them out," he added.

What may appear to be unfair discrimination against towns such as Riceville, where unemployment is high but numbers are unavailable, is actually a reflection of the intent of the public works jobs program, according to EDA officials.

"I hate to use the word 'discriminatory,'" said a spokesman for the EDA, "but in an area like (Riceville), how many unemployed construction workers are there?"

Meehan said that, in effect, the public works jobs program will help Riceville even though the town received no funding under it.

Towns near Riceville did receive funding and, according to Meehan, "the fact of the matter is that when you're building in Cresco, Iowa, you are withing commuting distance of Riceville. Sure, they're not getting any service in Riceville, but we can't satisfy everyone."

One town within commuting distance is Osage, Iowa (population 3,800). There are, according to the BLS, 75 unemployed people in Osage.

There will presumably be fewer jobless citizens in Osage when construction begins on an athletic addition at the local high school. The town has been funded $310,000 in public works money, which will go toward the addition."

News of the grant from the EDA surprised many Osage citizens who had voted down the project twice in local bond referendums. Between referendums, Osage's school superintendent quietly applied for the grant, with low expectations, as the town had been turned down in last year's funding.

The irony of receiving federal funds for a project that local citizens had voted against was not lost on the residents of Osage.

A spokesman for Rep. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said, "We got around 10 letters and calls on this. That doesn't sound like much, but it's tremendous response for something like this."

The letters, according to the spokesman, "were sort of soul-searching, from people who had voted against the project!"

Riceville residents still don't understand the reasoning that has led to Osage's funding and Riceville's failure to obtain funds.

"Please don't portray us as being piggish," said Elaine Govern. "I'm not sure that I even believe in big government programs, but if they're going to give to away, I only wish they would do they're going to give to away, I only wish they would doit justly."