When the Transportation Department handed out more than $3.7 billion in four of its highway programs last year, it relied on 10-year-old population statistics. And when the Interior Department distributed funds for wildlife restoration and outdoor recreation, it also used 1980 numbers.

In fiscal 1989, nine federal agencies used 1980 Census population figures to distribute $17.4 billion in 45 programs, the General Accounting Office reported last fall.

For states like Florida, which grew by more than 6,000 persons a week over the 1980s, or California, which grew by 11,000 persons a week, the federal government's reliance on old statistics meant millions of lost federal dollars.

"The population is moving to Florida, but the dollars aren't following that population," said Mark Mills, a spokesman for Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.).

Mack and others argue that too many federal funding programs use outdated statistics, often because more current numbers are not available. In some cases, funding formulas are based on the decennial census figures even when more current population estimates have been published.

"It's a matter of principle," said Mills. "If an agency in 1989 was using 1980 figures, then Florida's not going to get it's fair share of money."

A widespread consensus has formed in recent years that statistics gathered by the federal government, ranging from those on the nation's economy to its labor force and population, should not only be collected more often, but also in more subject areas, checked more carefully for accuracy and distributed more widely.

Federal statistics, said Michael R. Darby, Commerce Department undersecretary, "have fallen in both relative and absolute terms in quality." Despite budget increases designed to improve the data collection, he said, "we're still in a position of not doing all that we can and should do for the country."

Statistics on turnover in the labor force and the cause of that turnover, for example, have not been available since the early 1980s, Darby said.

Nor has the government published figures on GNP by industry, although Darby said those statistics will be available in the future.

"If we had been able to know what we knew in July of '90 in '89," he said, "we might have had different policies. We might not have been as close to zero percent growth in July 1990. So these are not merely curiosities for academics, but they guide policy."

Darby and others agree that the agencies that collect federal statistics, including the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are aware of the problems but constrained by lack of funds. Many of the budget problems date back to cuts ordered during the Reagan administration.

Funding has improved somewhat in fiscal 1991 for some statistics gathering, Darby said. Funds for economic and statistical analysis in the Commerce Department, for example, increased from $30.9 million to $36.2 million this fiscal year.

Experts say statistics gathering has been hurt not only by staff cutbacks, but also a failure to adjust to changing circumstances.

"The system has had a hard time keeping pace with changes in the economy and society," said Katherine K. Wallman, executive director of the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics.

She said that while the government continues to do an "excellent" job collecting information about the manufacturing economy, it has not adjusted to the shift toward a service economy.

Criticisms have also been leveled by an interagency group chaired by Michael J. Boskin, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, whose 1989 report cited 25 statistical areas that need improvement.

While the most vocal criticism has been directed toward economic statistics, there have also been other complaints.

"The government is collecting all sorts of data . . . that needs better dissemination," said Howard Silver, executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations. He cited information collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that is disseminated through a data depository at the University of Michigan.

"It's a question of how many people know that data set is available there," he said.

The question of whether federal funding is tied to outdated population figures was underscored when the GAO reported that, of 93 federal formula programs using Census Bureau population information to distribute fiscal 1989 funds, 45 relied on nearly 10-year-old data.

Mack, citing the loss of funds for fast-growing states like Florida, introduced legislation in 1989 requiring agencies to use the most current population figures. But in many cases, agencies were using decennial census numbers because nothing more current was available.

While Congress approved legislation in the late 1970s that would create a mid-decade census, funds were never authorized. In the numbers community, the prospect of a five-year headcount, or some version of a census, was welcomed.

Barbara A. Bailar, executive director of the American Statistical Association, pointed to Canada as an example of a nation that conducts a census every five years.

"It seems funny that a country that has about a tenth of our population has more up-to-date statistics," she said.