Census

Census Costs Soar as Americans Toss Surveys

Maybe they should just be less nosy

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U.S. Government

We're still a few years from the 2020 census, but federal agencies are already bracing themselves for the barrage of nosy questions they'll fire our way. Well, actually, they're bracing for the growing expense of getting us to answer those nosy questions. If the Census Bureau doesn't get off its butt and make some already recommended changes, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warns, the next nose-counting is likely to cost a bundle without being especially reliable.

As the GAO notes in a report published yesterday, the average cost of counting each household has risen, in constant 2010 dollars, from $16 in 1970 to $94 in 2010. That's probably in part because the response rate has declined over that period. This just may—I'm speculating here—have something to do wth a muttered, "you gotta be kidding me" after a glance at the form, then a flick toward the trash.

The 2010 census was "the most costly in history, totaling approximately $13 billion," and the 2020 edition "could cost approximately $25 billion (in constant 2010 dollars)" says the GAO. Even as costs have risen, year by year, the response rate to the mailed survey has declined steadily from 78 percent in 1970 to 63 percent in 2010.

The Census Bureau acknowledges that it faces growing resistance to lengthening surveys (both short and unbelievably long) and census takers. Part of its response, unveiled last year, is to bully us. What the Census Bureau should do, suggested Tasha Boone, Assistant Division Chief for the American Community Survey, is to write "YOUR RESPONSE IS REQUIRED BY LAW" in bigger letters than ever on the envelope.

Why more government workers don't find a second career in marketing is a mystery to me.

The Census Bureau has other ideas, too, including asking information from other agencies that already have the stuff, developing an address-verification system that doesn't rely on shoe leather, and more automation and online census forms.

Surprisingly not-bad, all of those. I'd add, "fewer nosy questions," but let's start with baby steps.

But don't get too excited. The GAO helpfully points out that progress toward implementing the Census Bureau's initiatives, its cost estimates and time frames for them, and even its commitment to them, are iffy. "As Census Day 2020 gets closer, the margin for schedule slippages is becoming increasingly narrow."

The GAO also emphasizes that it's made 121 suggestions regarding Internet surveys, research and testing, and improving IT management and security. "The Bureau needs to take action to address the recommendations GAO has made in prior reports. If these actions are not taken, cost overruns, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls will likely diminish the potential cost savings that the Bureau estimates will result from redesigning the census for 2020."

So…We should pretty much just count on high costs and "performance shortfalls" then, eh?

Oh, and those nosy questions, of course.

It's worth considering that the Netherlands stopped using traditional census questionnaires after 1971 because of widespread resistance to answering them. Like their counterparts in several other European countries, Dutch officials now use publicly available figures instead—for a big savings in time and money.

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  1. Count my balls.

  2. Am I the only one who’s sick of bullshit baby steps?

    1. Baby steps? Let me know when we’ve even begun crawling.

  3. Domesday Book FTW

    1. How many oxen and how many hides of land are registered under Restoras?

  4. We got one of those ACS things. We only gave the information we would’ve given in the actual, constitutional census.

    That fucking survey was intrusive as shit, and I couldn’t look at it without getting pissed off. No one has a right to demand that kind of information from me, dammit.

    Oh, I forgot. The FYTW clause.

    1. I got the long form the last time around, I tossed it. A while later they sent another long form, with a notice that a response was REQUIRED BY LAW. Tossed that one, too. I don’t have time for that shit, and they have no right to most of the information anyway.

      1. Same here, but I’m worried my wife dug it out and completed it because she was freaked out by the REQUIRED BY LAW.

        1. That’s the same thing that’s on pillow tags.

    2. Got one of those ACS things too. Put none of your business on every page and sent back. Get another one which got tossed. Got a few threatening letters which got ignored. Rep shows up at the door and I tell her already sent it in and will not answer anymore questions. A few phone calls from the rep and another visit. More threatening letters and finally a call from district office. Guy says ‘I am so and so with the Census bureau … ‘, hang up phone which is the last I heard from them.

  5. My God is that Uncle Sam poster creepy.

  6. Wait, it cost 94 bucks to count my house in 2010? I paid 94 bucks so that the Feds could here me say “present” and answer a few stupid questions? 94 bucks plus, like, 15 minutes? That sucks.

    1. hear me say “here” maybe…

  7. Has anyone tried answering all the questions on the census form other than enumeration with “I invoke my fifth ammendment right to remain silent”?

    1. I’m tempted to answer with an occupancy rate of zero people.

      1. I just flat made up shit.

        Then tossed it in the trash after the fun leaked out of that project.

        1. I would’ve held out hopes for some desk jockey to show up at the door and I get to explain, “Someone’s made a mistake, you clearly have the wrong family/household.”

  8. Why more government workers don’t find a second career in marketing is a mystery to me.

    Considering they can’t even read the paper and figure out that the NSA is already gathering, storing, and sharing this data, I see no mysteries.

    1. You could switch to a career in sarcasm detection with the census bureau. You’d fit right in.

  9. Wasn’t the 2010 Census an FDR-esque jobs program? IIRC, there were stories about surveyors, or whatever the hell they’re called, being put to work for an hour or two a week, then laid off, then put back to work for another short stint, so the jobs numbers would look much better (four person accounted for 11 jobs created in a month!).

    At one point, directly as a result of these shenanigans, there were technically more women employed in the U.S. than men, though the number of women employed has since declined rather dramatically, with about 100k women leaving the labor force each month since Jan. 2014 (even with all the BLS chicanery.)

    /My go-to for statistics projects when doing the Big Data thing from Johns Hopkins/Coursera was BLS numbers, especially by gender. One of my projects charted booms in male employment after both Susan Falludi’s “Stiffed,” and Hannah Rosin’s “The End of Men” were published, in 1995 and 2010, respectively.. No, I did not argue causation. Purpose of the project was just be able to plot something in R.

  10. Tuccille’s comment about “publicly available figures” is ridiculously naive for the United States.

    Please tell me where these magical “publicly available figures” are. What the Dutch do is track births, deaths, marriages, moves, job changes, and other life events when they happen. A lot of that information, especially that pertaining to work, isn’t even recorded in the United States or, if it is, is recorded by completely different agencies and governmental organizations with absolutely zero coordination — employment agencies, the DMV, vital records’ offices, etc.

    If you want to talk about a world without privacy, consider one where the government has a continuously updated and centralized database of every member of the population. This is actually the case for France and Denmark, among others.

    On the other hand, consider the cost — in the current United States context — of setting up such a system that coordinates all of those information sources. There’s literally no way that the fixed cost of that is less than the cost of the Census.

    1. If you want to talk about a world without privacy, consider one where the government has a continuously updated and centralized database of every member of the population.

      Like the one in Utah?

    2. On the other hand, consider the cost — in the current United States context — of setting up such a system that coordinates all of those information sources. There’s literally no way that the fixed cost of that is less than the cost of the Census.

      If you keep talking like that, you’ll give our masters the bright idea to implement your ideas on top of what we already have.

      Then we will have an even bigger Senseless Bureau.

    3. Maybe not “publicly” available but “government” available.
      Consider how many times FEDGOV is notified of your existence.
      Every time tax withholding is submitted, there goes along with it a form with your name on it. Every government benefit check, going to those who don’t work, such as unemployment, Social Security, welfare, government disability, etc. also contains a name.
      While setting up a system to coordinate this information would have been costly, it would have been a one-time expenditure, making the decennial census simply a routine of matching the names with addresses, requiring very little personal information.
      But, of course, these things wouldn’t let NANNYGOV track how many of each race, gender (don’t be surprised if the Facebook categories are used), sexual orientation, and all the other social engineering info we get categorized as. Can’t have that.

  11. fuck your couch count

  12. I usually just toss it, and when they come a-knocking and want to give me a new one, I ask them if it is a crime to submit two of them. Of course they say yes, and I refuse to take their proffering. If they tell me the first once hasn’t been received, I ask how they can tell if the data is confidential.

    Sometimes I tell them I just moved and filled one out at the old location.

    I assume they just fill in likely data and go on their way.

    One year I wrote “1” in the “number of occupants” and sent it in. Never heard from them again.

  13. The legal rationalization for the US census (never mind the questions themselves) is because the Constitution requires it. But it only does so for two reasons: to equalize Congressional districts, and for redistribution.

    I have two fixes for that first one (the second is just socialism). First, have reps vote the number of votes they received in the last election. (Whether this is their personal votes or all votes for the district is another quibble. Personal votes encourages voting for the winner to maximize district votes. But I would also go a step further and send the top three winners to Congress, to minimize the two-party system, and then they should cast personal votes.)

    Second, allow anyone who owns a parcel on the border of a Congressional district to switch to a neighboring parcel, if it had fewer votes in the last election.

    1. But I would also go a step further and send the top three winners to Congress, to minimize the two-party system, and then they should cast personal votes.)

      I’m still not sold on this. We have a top two system here in Washington that to me, stamped out what little political diversity we had. Our permanent election choices are Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren.

      Sometimes it’s Elizabeth Warren, evening wear vs Elizabeth Warren business casual.

    2. “The legal rationalization for the US census (never mind the questions themselves) is because the Constitution requires it. But it only does so for two reasons: to equalize Congressional districts, and for redistribution.”

      About 70 years ago in school, I was also taught the census was required for two reasons, but those reasons were apportioning representatives and taxing of each of the States. Redistribution of representatives, but nothing else.

      Repeal the 16th and 17th amendments as well as the Federal Reserve act and that would go a long way towards restoring our government to how it was meant to work, from the bottom up rather from the top down. We need to return our government to one in which the people are REPRESENTED by their elected politicians NOT RULED by the party they belong to or those who fund their campaigns.\

      1. “We need to return our government to one in which the people are REPRESENTED by their elected politicians NOT RULED by the party they belong to or those who fund their campaigns.\”

        Your experent of government is a failure. You actually believe they will limit themselves and abolish control they have over their slaves????

        ” We need —-insert shit they’ve been saying for centuries here—-” is such bullshit. Be a slave by yourself, and leave folks that want to be free the hell alone.

    3. As an aside, check out http://www.boldtruth.com/
      It lays out a 1789 submitted entry to the Bill of Rights, that there is a dispute about ratification, that says there should be no more than 50,000 people in each Representative’s district.
      Yes, roughly 6,300 members of the House of Representatives.

  14. “The legal rationalization for the US census (never mind the questions themselves) is because the Constitution requires it. But it only does so for two reasons: to equalize Congressional districts, and for redistribution”

    There is also the matter of the Census Bureau mandating businesses fill out all sorts of forms related to their business activities, assets, liabilities, etc not once every ten years but every single year.

    That is most certainly NOT authorized by the Constitution and the Census Bureau shouldn’t have any authority to do it.

  15. The first national project of the modern libertarian movement was resistance to the 1970 census, organized by Society for Individual Liberty. It received a front page article in the Wall Street Journal.

  16. They’ll have bring back the statistical sampling argument. Which will be really neat. “We estimate this democratic district has grown 700%, apportion a new seat!”

  17. They sent me a letter telling me my response it “required by law.” This because I filed a tax return itemizing business deductions, the letter says. I checked the statute they reference. Guess what? It only applies if they “furnished” me with a questionnaire. The letter told me to go on line and complete the survey. That’s not legally the same thing as furnishing me with a questionnaire, so I never responded.

    Supposedly, census info is confidential. Try telling that to Jeralean Talley, 115, of Inkster, Michigan:
    http://michiganvoters.info/by_…..alley.html

    The 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940 U.S. Census reports are all open to the public.

  18. I don’t mind answering all the questions that are Constitutionally authorized…

    That is to say: “How many people live here?”

    Anything else? Go fish.

  19. Just received my printed Community Survey – since I didn’t respond to their hectoring to go on-line – and accorded it a place of honor in my recycling bin.
    And, again in 2020 when the census is taken, they will get name, rank, and serial number, and nothing more – just like they got in 2010, and 2000, and 1990, etc.

  20. I’ve always filled out just the enumeration questions – Name and address only. But now I’m rethinking even that, because I’m a New Yorker, and I truly do not want my state to have its share of representation in congress. Maybe it would be better to report that I live in New Hampshire, and let them choose instead of my idiot neighbors.

  21. Fuck the government.

  22. Most of the problem is fetishizing “1 man, 1 vote”. If they’d allow districts to be off by even 1%, they could save a lot. If they’d allow districts to be off by as much as 10%, they could practically retire.

  23. Dummies need to read their Law Book again.. I mean, the Constitution. The cnesus is required, alright, but the information required to be collected is minimal. Perhaps eight or ten simple questions. Age and gender of all residents. Marital status of heads of household/parents. Residcnce status, as in, citizen, naturalised, permanent resident, resident alien. Approximate household income MIGHT be OK, answered by a range of tickboxes. (under $20K, 20-50K, 50-100K, etc)

    NO PLACE to even put anyone’s name, or address, or phone number. Perhaps zip code. Nothing more.

    End of survey. Takes about one minute to complete, no intrusive or specific questions, no recordable information that might possibly lead to government noses poking about. ALL the Census is to do is to get a rough idea of how many live here…..

  24. For the purposes of fulfilling the responsibilities of the Federal government as enumerated by our Constitution, the census should only require a count of legal citizens residing in each State.

  25. MAIL Response rate drops 15% and cost per household goes up nearly 6x in constant-dollars?

    Is there ANYTHING to be learned from this?

    Does the Census Bureau EVER ask “their customers” WHY they toss the shit out? Or what they could do to make things better or improve the response rate?

    Must be using MSNBC’s Marketing Playbook.

    MAIL?! What would be the cost per household if five or ten or thirty percent of the forms could be done On-Line with “no printing or mailing costs”?

    Oh, wait… they’d farm THAT out to the same morons who implemented Obamacare’s Online System…. ok, no hope there…

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