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26Feb
2010
2010 Census: Mail It Back?

The United States Census is a decennial census mandated by the United States Constitution, and is used (among other things) to determine how more than $400 billion dollars of federal funding each year is spent on infrastructure and services.

Participation is mandatory, and the US Government (including the President) are engaged in a campaign to raise awareness and drive participation. Indeed, they have a very modern looking website, a blog, and are even using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, flickr, downloadable widgets to get the message out (see the What You Can Do) page. And I'm really impressed with this use of the Internet, social networking, and more to get the word out.

Or rather, I *WAS* impressed. Until I saw the message "We Can't Move Forward Until You Mail It Back". Mail it back? Really? We have a really nice web site in over 50 languages, social site integration, even a slick Flash powered interactive version of the form .... and then this:

Q: Can I fill out my form online?

A: No. Not at this time. We are experimenting with Internet response for the future.

The future? Really? As in the next US Census in 2020?

2000 was still early Internet days, so back then this would have been forgivable. But this is 2010, people live online, a couple of months ago online holiday shopping $s exceeded in store shopping $s, we bank online, utilities prefer to send you e-bills, and on and on and on .... But mail back your Census form, and we'll revisit in the future!

Ouch! What a failure!

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Comments (18)



  • Paul Carney

    I completely agree with you, Ben. They could have included three sets of extended "codes" unique to every household, then tracked the responses on those codes to validate. The only reason they didn't is that it would save them money and they would have a hard time asking for their budget next time...

  • Laurie Robey

    I see where you're coming from, but take into account that until approximately one year ago, a different administration was in power, one that didn't do much with the internet or seem to put much stock in it or know how to use it. In the government, gears grind slowly.

    #2Posted by Laurie Robey | Feb 26, 2010, 01:01 PM
  • Steve 'Cutter' Blades

    @Laurie Robey,

    IMO, You give far too much credit to the current administration, and far too little to the former. You have to remember that Congress is the true 'voice of change,' and they haven't done much more than bicker for far too long. Thankfully a very large percent are up for reelection this year. Maybe we should clean the slate and start new (that would be true 'change').

    I think it has more to do with the fact that the USPS is still a government entity, and several million pieces of census mail justifies (in some way) the jobs of thousands of people who are in (rightful) fear of becoming obsolete.

  • Patrick Hedgepath

    Agree Ben, and a year is more than enough time to set this up.

    #4Posted by Patrick Hedgepath | Feb 26, 2010, 01:38 PM
  • Chris

    @ Steve

    I agree with you - also let's not forget that participation is NOT mandatory - at least the type of participation Obama wants you to have. What is mandatory is simply filling out the short form that states quantity of individuals in a residence and their ages - not questions like "How much do earn?" "Where did your earnings come from?" "How much did you pay for insurance?" "Who do you vote for?"...

    #5Posted by Chris | Feb 26, 2010, 02:00 PM
  • JC

    Same reason they don't have online voting. Chicago would end up with an apparent population twice the size of LA and NYC combined. Vote early, vote often.

    #6Posted by JC | Feb 26, 2010, 02:29 PM
  • John Dowdell

    Seems like it'd be easier to track whether the original paper was submitted back, than it would be to verify unique responses via a web form...?

    (Those numbers are used to reapportion money taken from taxpayers, and so are hot politically... even <a href="http://www.google.com/search?q=%22address+verifica...; online verification methods have not always been used.)

  • David

    It would be great to fill this in on line, especially when towns and cities greatest fears are that young people won't participate (thus giving an inaccurate view of community needs, etc). It seems like a great way to “reach” younger citizens.

    As far as the charges of what one administration did vs. another, the reality is that successive administrations, and sittings of congress, both parties, have cut the budgets of administrative departments for many years.

    The requirements we're talking about would, at very least, require considerable QA efforts and the resources/focus that comes with that. We're talking about a system that must process tens of millions of entries flawlessly, and securely.

    We, the electorate (as a whole), have asked for this - indirectly, of course. We've asked for smaller government, lower taxes, etc - again, I'm not talking overnight, or since the last election cycle, I’m talking about decades of elections.

    If we want, and feel there's a public good to investment in technology, and that ultimately it can serve our (America, sorry to my International friends) country better, then we have to stand up and demand it become a priority. We have to convince those that are not in our technology community that it's a good idea, EVEN if it means spending more in the short term.

    Just MHO. (please feel free to insert partisan slogans below)

    (disclaimer: I am not a federal employee, democrat, republican, senator, Iraqi minister of information, etc, etc, etc)

    #8Posted by David | Feb 26, 2010, 02:33 PM
  • Jeff Price

    The 2010 Census will cost almost three times what the 2000 Census cost. In fact, the escalation in the cost of the Census is fairly staggering.

    http://www.genealogybranches.com/censuscosts.html

    It would certainly be nice to fill it out online and save us some money. Of course, do we really want to think about how much the government would spend on a one page web form that verifies a code and then saves to a database? I would rather not think about it.

    Personally, I plan to only answer the questions that deal with who lives in my house. They don't need to know my phone number, whether I own or rent or what race I am. I understand why they want that information and they can fine me the $100 if they dare.

    However, PLEASE send your form back. Refusing to return the form will cause the Census to send someone out to your residence, more than once if they don't get you at home. This costs all taxpayers money (well, really it will costs our kids and grandchildren since we are financing it over 100 years or something).

  • Ben Forta

    Laurie, I don't buy it. There was enough time to put a simple 10 question form with some basic validation online. And think of the cost savings compared to the fortunes that will be spent unnecessarily on mailing costs and data entry or form scanning, as Cutter noted.

    Chris, that is incorrect. Look at the form. It has 10 questions, and none ask about income or voting or insurance.

    JC, I don't buy that argument, not for the census and not for online voting. There is always a % of fraud in every election and survey. If done properly there should be LESS fraud with doing it electronically, not more.

    #10Posted by Ben Forta | Feb 26, 2010, 02:37 PM
  • Michael Brennan White

    What they should do is offer to pay everyone who legitimately fills one out to receive $10 extra back with their tax return (or they could donate it to the budget deficit) rather than spending all the money on advertising.

  • The Game

    Typical Obama.

    #12Posted by The Game | Feb 26, 2010, 06:44 PM
  • Craig

    It's funny that the Government can accept filing taxes and payments in a secure manner, but they can't take census forms.

    #13Posted by Craig | Feb 27, 2010, 11:48 AM
  • Lyle

    Census data is really, really interesting from a genealogical and historical research perspective. Proportional representation in congress is a limited factor for how it is used today, but aggregated demographic trends help local policy makers make important decisions as well. Librarians for instance use language data to help decide how many Spanish language materials to purchase for the library and governments use such data to plan where new police/fire stations/libraries should be built in the next 10 years. These are important decisions that affect your local community - and they are made from the census data.

    I find it pretty amazing how many of your posters want to blame parties or Obama for the census. That makes no sense. It's been around a long time, and in the planning stages for at least 4 years. It's not like Obama could take office last year and tell them to change everything.

    To those that think everything is a plot to invade your privacy: feel free to not list your race, but such things really do help policy makers of both parties make decisions that affect you. If you don't want to be counted because of some crazy misinformed belief that the census tracks your income or other such nonsense, then don't be counted. A widespread, but targeted boycott will only affect services for your population group.

    Ben, you have a legitimate complaint that the census wasn't handled via on online form. It does sound lame, but hopefully next time.

    Anyhow, the 2007 census nominee (Bush's) stated explicitly that he wanted to have it, but that they couldn't do it this time:

    http://fcw.com/articles/2007/12/19/census-nominee-...

    In particular, "The bureau tested Internet surveys in 2001, 2003 and 2005 and concluded that the increased response rate and cost savings didn’t outweigh privacy risks, which Murdock reiterated during the hearing."

    #14Posted by Lyle | Feb 28, 2010, 10:33 PM
  • Neil Moncur

    Ben, understand the frustration. However, a few counterpoints (by the way, I do not work for the census bureau, nor any branch of the federal government):

    1. A lot of this stuff is controlled by deeply entrenched policy and law. The Census bureau has been doing this for hundreds of years, and it takes time to abandon something that has worked for centuries, and move to a new paradigm. Huff and puff all you want, but it takes time to change these things.

    2. They have to try to get it right, and so are understandably hesitant to use anonymizing technologies like the web. There is some value in making people go to the trouble to fill out a card and mail it back. You are more likely to get honest answers. If you could just log onto some website and fill out answers, I promise it will be abused. Think Facebook group: "Everyone, let's skew the census to show more population in New Mexico!!! LOLZ!!!"

    3. A little credit to the census bureau. They were early adopters of analog computers (I think as early as the 1910 or 20 census), and have literally driven computer innovation for around 100 years. Remember, before computers were merely social networking and flash games terminals, they were actually used to "compute" stuff. And the census bureau saw the value before any of us were born, and drove a lot of the very early innovation (and not so early innovation).

  • Don

    What is 1 more piece of mail? Three actually! I received the pre-census notification, will receive the census and have to mail it back. If the postal service is losing money at $0.44 per piece the thats more than $151 million that could be saved online by the 114 million households filing on line with something as simple as using the head of households Social security or Drivers licience number. Just makes good sense to pay people $16 to $20 an hour to canvas the area? When I can walk into a public library and fill it out on line!

    #16Posted by Don | Mar 15, 2010, 08:33 AM
  • Don

    The abuse issue? With the cost of computer and printers as low as they are; if some one wants to inflate the numbers they will just print fake census forms and mail them in! Rip the information out of the local phone book with a scanner and it is postage paid. Persons that do not desire to fill out a census will not just as people that do not desire to vote will not. Tie it to your tax return might be a incentive: but that's illegal can not use social security number for any other purpose: but even that is bogus it is used to track your taxes. My wife worked for the state and read my file with every job I ever filed a W-2 listed.

    #17Posted by Don | Mar 15, 2010, 08:46 AM
  • kocsog

    There are some value in making people go to the trouble .It would be great to fill this in on line.

    #18Posted by kocsog | Aug 11, 2010, 10:24 AM