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Census aims to (finally) move into the future

Jul. 7, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By HAYA EL NASSER   |   Comments
This year's Census may be the last to be filled out completely by hand and conducted primarily through mailings and home visits.
This year's Census may be the last to be filled out completely by hand and conducted primarily through mailings and home visits. (CENSUS BUREAU)

Terry Stamm doesn't mind filling out a Census form every 10 years, but he does take issue with a couple of things.

One, the quaint methods the government still uses (snail mail, pen and paper, door-to-door visits). Two, the skyrocketing cost ($14.7 billion for the 2010 Census).

"There's got to be a better way," says Stamm, 54, a small-business owner in Overland Park, Kan. "We just need to find a more efficient way to do it. Spending billions of dollars is ridiculous."

The sentiment is shared by many.

As hundreds of thousands of workers knock on doors this summer to collect information for the 2010 Census, momentum is mounting to drag future Censuses into the 21st century.

This year's Census may be the last to be filled out completely by hand and conducted primarily through mailings and home visits.

Almost certain for 2020: many people logging onto a secured Census website and filling out the form with a few keystrokes instead of pen, paper and a pre-addressed envelope.

"Using the Postal Service was an enormous innovation in 1970" when Census forms were first mailed (previous Censuses were door-to-door surveys), says Margo Anderson, a professor of history and urban studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an expert on Census history. "We're 40 years later, and the mail isn't the official way most people get their information or communicate. It's really outmoded."

Census Bureau Director Robert Groves agrees.

"We need to be serious about saving money," says Groves, who oversees a Census that will cost almost $50 a person when it's done 66 percent more than the 2000 Census. "The easiest way to do that is reduce the number of people involved in the collection of data."

The cost of the Census has mushroomed for several reasons.

Technical glitches forced the agency to scrap expensive handheld devices it had planned for door-to-door canvassing. About 650,000 temporary workers were hired to go door-to-door to millions of households that failed to return the Census form by mail. An unprecedented $340 million promotional blitz unfolded featuring an ad during the Super Bowl in February, Census trailers crisscrossing more than 150,000 miles nationwide to urge Americans to participate, and public service ads targeting racial and ethnic groups and non-English speakers in 28 languages.

Groves last month asked Roderick Little, a University of Michigan biostatistician, to explore ways to get more people to participate in future Censuses. The goal: Increase efficiency and keep costs down.

"In the developed countries, the traditional ways of measuring folks by doing face-to-face interviews in their homes are being supplemented with other modes mail, phone," Groves says. "We could be adding a fourth: the Internet."

Canada introduced an Internet option in 2001 for the census it conducts every five years. In 2006, less than 20 percent of households filled out the survey online, but more are expected to take part in 2011.

In the U.S., the Internet won't eliminate the costliest challenge the Census Bureau faces: persuading people who don't want to participate to do so.

"It won't solve all our problems," Groves says. He predicts the Census ultimately will use a combination of methods, from an online form to some reliance on administrative records such as birth certificates.

"Some ideas will work," he says. "Some ideas won't."

Congress sets the rules

A total of 223 countries and areas are taking a census between 2005 and 2014 from Indonesia, Russia and Brazil to Namibia and Mexico, the United Nations Statistics Division reports.

Why is the U.S., the leader of the free world and the third most populous nation (an estimated 309 million people), still unable to come up with a less arcane system?

"The Census needs to both count people and place them," says Martha Farnsworth Riche, Census director from 1994 to 1998. "That's what makes us pretty much different from most other countries and what makes the mandate really different."

The reason the Census must track not only the number of people but where they live is simple: The Constitution requires a count of every person living in the U.S. to determine the number of seats each state gets in the House of Representatives. Every 10 years since 1790, a Census has been taken. Census counts also are used to draw state and local political districts.

"We're still doing the Census the way we did it the first time," says Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a member of a Senate subcommittee that oversees the Census. "There's been no long-term planning, no foresight, no investigation of what other government agencies are doing in terms of secured [online] networks."

Every change and every dollar spent on the Census requires approval from Congress a reality that creates political tussling every 10 years.

The Census Bureau answers to the Commerce Department, which is headed by presidential appointees who can change after elections every four years often in the middle of a 10-year Census cycle, when new strategies are being studied.

"The Bureau will put other options out and reasonable ideas will get on the table," Riche says. "The Bureau will test them and everybody in Congress will look at which method will help their guys and which will hurt them. . . . Remember, the Census belongs to Congress."

Sens. Coburn and Tom Carper, D-Del., and Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Charlie Dent, R-Pa., and have introduced bipartisan legislation that would give the Census Bureau more independence.

Among key proposed changes: Allowing the director to submit opinions in testimony to Congress even if they're different from the administration's, and requiring an annual report to Congress on the next Census. Seven former Census directors Republican and Democratic appointees have endorsed the measure.

More issues are looming

The Census faces other challenges:

There's a tight deadline. A population count for every state must be delivered to the president by the end of the year the Census is taken. When there are glitches that could be fixed with extra time, there is no flexibility to extend the deadline.

It's not just a head count. Because it must count people where they live, using income tax returns, Social Security records or driver's licenses cannot do the job alone.

"Tax records don't capture the fact that Uncle Charlie is living in the attic," Anderson says. "The other problem is that the information on a tax form doesn't contain demographic information - mostly race and ethnicity."

Congress mandates collecting race and ethnicity data to give federal agencies the information they need to monitor compliance with anti-discrimination laws such as the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.

Making online forms work. Using the Internet will require layers of security against fraud and mistakes - such as a husband and wife filing duplicate Census forms for their household. It also would require an extensive publicity campaign to alert and reassure people about the change.

Countries such as Canada typically require Internet Census respondents to enter a unique ID number contained in a letter delivered to their homes. In the USA, that wouldn't work for millions of homes that get mail delivered to a post office box or that don't get mail. The Census Bureau might be able to reach some by phone.

All that would likely still leave millions of doors for Census takers to knock on, but savings from using online forms still could be enormous.

Privacy concerns. The U.S. has resisted a national registration system for its residents, a way of life in many other countries.

Scandinavian countries, Holland and Germany have systems that create a complete administrative record for every resident.

"They don't have to go out and count the entire population every five or 10 years," says Kenneth Prewitt, Census Bureau director in 2000. "The sophisticated systems in Europe require you to report change of address. In Holland, it records when you go to school, when you leave your job."

Americans must decide if they want a national file on every resident to make government more efficient or "do they worry about government accumulating big data bases on people?" Groves says. "In Scandinavian countries, they're quite happy, and stopped doing censuses."

Changes are coming

While the 2010 Census continues, a different Census in 2020 is taking shape - a move many Americans say is overdue.

"Pretty old-fashioned," Roger Tschappatt, a retired elementary school teacher in Wheeling, W.Va., calls the current methods. "We have great statisticians in this country. They could do it very cheaply and accurately through random sampling."

The Census proposed using statistical sampling in 2000 a method that involves counting a segment of the population and extrapolating the data for the entire population from that sample. The House of Representatives, controlled by Republicans at the time, challenged the method as unconstitutional. Democrats largely supported sampling because it would count people mostly minorities disproportionately missed by traditional methods.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that statistical sampling could not be used to calculate the population for purposes of determining how many House seats each state gets. Sampling numbers still can be used to help allocate more than $400 billion a year in federal money.

Sampling or no sampling, the Census should be done electronically, says Frederick Rone, 24, an electrical engineer for the Tennessee Valley Authority in Knoxville. "Most people have an e-mail or cellphone text or something," Rone says. "I don't really know anyone who doesn't."

Coburn advocates a fast move to the Internet, which he says would cut costs in half. "If they do 70 percent of it online, you have all the resources left" to chase the 30 percent who don't respond, he says.

There is congressional pressure to lock in a plan that will set a design and a budget for the 2020 Census as early as possible, Groves says.

"I reject that argument," he says, pointing to technological developments that are unforeseen today. "We need to be nimble in a way we haven't had to be in the past."

Maloney agrees.

"We can't anticipate what other technology will be available in addition to the Internet," she says.

Getting a jump-start on the 2020 Census is vital, says Anderson, the history professor.

"Should we change this? If so, how?" she says. "Ultimately, a really, really big change might need legislation. Otherwise, you'll find yourself in 2017 saying, ‘Gee, we should've done this years ago.' "

Stamm, whose Kansas business restores and repairs leather, says the Internet is the way to go: "Mail a card to everybody and say please respond on the Internet. There's got to be a better way."

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Haya El Nasser reports for USA Today. Paul Overberg contributed.

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