The Census Bureau has been so strapped for funds that it is well behind in getting out results of the 1980 census and cannot report as much as it used to about what America is like today.
But there is at least one corner of the bureau that is flourishing--the divisions that keep tabs on other countries.
One produces studies of all types on Russia and China, including a recent look at the Soviet economy that made headlines around the country. Another office keeps track of major demographic developments abroad and another helps train statisticians and demographers from other countries.
The international units "have taken only very slight cuts" in the recent rounds of furloughs and budget cuts, Bureau Director Bruce Chapman noted. One reason, he said, is that many of their projects are paid for by contracts with international and federal agencies, such as the State Department, Pentagon and Agency for International Development.
But Chapman would like to beef up their budgets and expand the bureau's international activities even more.
"The expertise is here," he said. "The bureau is the leading international statistics agency in this country. The bureau has been collecting data for many years on other countries," and its special knowledge of population and economic statistics makes it well qualified for the job.
The three offices developed over the past 40 years as it became clear the government needed to know more about what goes on in foreign countries. But they operate in relative obscurity, in part because of the nature of their client agencies.
The idea of doing demographic and related studies of the Soviet Union goes back to the post-World War II era, when the Commerce Department began collecting statistics for foreign policy analysis, focusing on demographic and socio-economic trends.
During the Vietnam war, according to census officials, the Defense and State departments and other agencies often contracted with Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis for similar studies.
To provide a formal center for this work, the Foreign Demographic Analysis Division was created in the bureau in the early 1970s. It now has two branches: the Soviet branch, for many years headed by Dr. Murray Feshbach who recently retired and has not been replaced, and the China branch, headed by Dr. John Aird.
The division is tiny, with only 33 employes including clerical, a small proportion of the bureau's 8,000-plus employes. But it has done some well-publicized studies. One was the recent analysis of Soviet imports and exports, suggesting that they play a larger role in the Soviet economy than previously thought and implying that Russia is more vulnerable to economic pressure than many had believed.
Before that, Feshbach and a colleague did a study showing that Russia's infant mortality rate is rising, a situation that puts it virtually alone among major industrial nations.
Other studies have covered research and development employment in the Soviet Union and population estimates and projections for eastern Europe to the year 2000. A forthcoming study will report on modernization in China, and deal with the Chinese labor force and population estimates.
A sister division, with 25 employes, is the International Demographic Data Center, financed mostly by contracts with the State Department and related agencies. It studies birth, death and infant mortality rates and other population trends in other countries.
The third unit is the International Statistical Programs Center with 114 employes, formed about 40 years ago. Under contract with AID, the United Nations, World Bank and other international organizations and foreign governments, it trains foreign nationals to do the same kind of demographic and statistical analyses in their countries that the bureau does for the United States. So far, it has trained over 5,000 foreign statisticians, demographers and computer experts.
In addition, the center sends its experts to foreign nations to help them set up their census bureaus or to do special studies for them. In the past it has sent people to Saudi Arabia, Latin America, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia, among others. "We have as many as 50 technical teams out in a given year," Chapman said.