Saturday, March 13, 2010

Census 2010

When I heard that the census form we Americans will be receiving soon has only 10 questions, I wondered whether that is due to a presumed short attention span on our part.

This is the clause (Article I, Section 2) in the U.S. Constitution that mandates a census each decade:
"Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct."
The census data is used to determine the number of members of the U.S. House of Representatives from each state; to draw boundaries for federal, state, and local representative districts; to allocate federal and state funding and services; to analyze the demographics of the country; and to research genealogy and other historical questions.

From its start in 1790, the census has been mainly a head count, but in 1850 the Census Bureau began to collect more data, including the value of the real estate and whether the members of the household could read and write. In 1870, they asked each person's profession, occupation, or trade. In 1880, they added questions about health and disability. The 1930 questionnaire expanded the question about race. From 1940 to 1990, the census included 2 separate sets of questions about housing and population, with additional questions asked of some households to provide a statistical sample (a method continued in susequent years). The first year in which respondents were tasked with self-reporting and mailing back the form was 1970, and they all were asked to respond to 8 questions about housing and 13 about population. In 1980, everyone was asked 33 questions about population, including level of education, veteran status, income, and commute, and 12 questions about housing. If you were asked to participate in the statistical sample in 1990, you answered a total of 26 questions about housing and 32 about population. In 2000, the population and housing questions were combined, with 8 on the short form and a total of 53 on the long form.

The cost of the 2010 census is expected to be between $13.7 billion and $14.5 billion, an average of $45 per household - nearly 3 times as much as the 2000 census. This includes $85 million to send out a letter letting us know to expect the census form and a follow-up postcard reminding us to mail it back. The Federal Government does not have an apparatus in place for filling the form out on-line, nor will census-takers be equipped with hand-held computers to conduct follow-up interviews - both of which have the potential to keep costs down.

In their promotional campaign, the Census Bureau touts the fact that this year's form is "one of the shortest forms in history" and uses the catchphrase "10 Questions in 10 Minutes." One of the questions is simply your phone number and 2 multiple-choice questions are about race. I, for one, am underwhelmed. This seems to me an instance where less is not more. I know there are many polls and other methods of collecting demographic information, but the census costs have ballooned while the form has regressed to something not much more detailed than a headcount. Shouldn't we be getting more for our money? And shouldn't we be willing to set aside more than 10 minutes every 10 years to answer a form that does not invade our privacy, but is perhaps a little more probing?

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