Making It Count

The Census Bureau ramps up to tally each and every U.S. resident in 2010.

The Census Bureau ramps up to tally each and every U.S. resident in 2010.

The Census Bureau is preparing for its biggest event of the decade. To get ready, the bureau is compiling a massive address list, signing contracts with the best available vendors and planning a dress rehearsal of the 2010 census.

The Constitution requires a federal census once every 10 years to determine the number of congressional seats per state. The bureau reports its findings to the president within nine months of counting where residents reside on April 1. The census also determines how $200 billion in federal funding, including Medicaid, is distributed. Businesses and local governments use the information to decide where to open schools, hospitals, factories and stores.

Unlike most surveys, the census is not based on extrapolation from statistical samples. Instead, the bureau tries to interview every single person living in the United States on April 1 of the decennial year. "We don't give up," says Preston Jay Waite, associate director for the decennial census. In 2010, the bureau will mail two rounds of questionnaires before sending enumerators door to door. If no one answers the door after three visits, the bureau employee leaves a note asking residents to call the local census office. If there is still no response, then a census taker calls up to three times. If there is still no response, the enumerator interviews neighbors about who lives in the house. Waite says this is less accurate than interviewing residents personally, but better than no data at all. The bureau estimates the 2000 Census missed about 2.7 million housing units out of a total of 116 million.

Residents are getting worse at responding to the census. In 1970, 84 percent of people who received questionnaires in the mail responded. In 2000, 64 percent did. The bureau is trying to improve response by making it easier. In 2010, the bureau will ask people to fill out a short form, asking only questions about the number of people in the house and their gender and ethnicity. In-depth questions about the number of bathrooms and how well educated residents are will be relegated to the American Community Survey, which the bureau conducts on an ongoing basis. For the first time, the bureau will mail a second form to those who do not respond to the first. Waite expects this to boost the response rate by 7 percent. Because the costs of going door to door are so high, each percentage point gain in mail response saves about $75 million.

The Government Accountability Office and Congress want the bureau to look into additional money-saving methods, including using the Internet to collect data. For now, Waite says, the bureau couldn't guarantee security on the Internet and wouldn't be able to tell who was actually filling out an online form. What he doesn't want, he says, are census crashers.

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