Final word on the Census letter

The last word on the Census letter calculations before I head out this morning on the drive to spring training.

If you’ve been following the discussion up to now(here and here), you know that I’ve been asking Census Bureau officials to break down their calculation that they’d save $510 million by sending out the letter with advance warning that Census forms would arrive next week. That letter (and a follow-up postcard) will cost about $85 million.

The effort is expected to prompt 7 million people, who otherwise would not have sent in the Census form without the letter, to send it in.

I’ve been asking how the Census Bureau’s math calculates out to a $75 cost for someone to knock on a door and get the form from each one of those people, suspecting that the Bureau is using the cost to get the hardest-to-convince people to send in their forms, and that it could be much less expensive to get the second-most-easy-to-convince people to send in theirs.

It’s taken several requests to get specifics, but an e-mail from Shelly Lowe of the Census Department arrived this morning, an indicates that the numbers do not come from Census Bureau experience:


Bob, it costs .42 when someone mails back the form, and about $57 / household if we have to send an enumerator to collect the response. For every 1% increase in mail response, there’s a savings of approx. $85 M. If mail response increases by 6%, savings would be about 6*$85M, or about $510M. This is standard “multiple contact strategy” and well-researched. Note that we are also sending a reminder postcard, and, for the first time, we are sending a replacement questionnaire to targeted areas with historically low response rates. Our research indicates these mailings more than pay for themselves.

All of the responses to this issue have been fascinating to read, especially the ones where I learned I’m not the only “census geek” (as one person put it) who was momentarily excited that the Census forms had arrived. Now, I’m thinking we should have a News Cut “census party” to fill out our forms.

  • Tyler

    I’m curious – how many of you who enjoy the Census also enjoy doing your taxes?

  • Heather

    The Census is a lot more fun than taxes (easier, and there’s no chance you’ll have to send a check). Plus, it doesn’t happen every year!

  • Kary Delaria

    Thanks for the post and asking the questions.

    Here’s something else to ponder …

    My brother was hired by the Census as a door to door person and it went a little something like this:

    4 days of training

    1st day – he was given his locations, visited them (apparently these first visits are just to see how many people are living there and will be there when the Census comes out), finished work day in 3 hours.

    2nd day – given more locations, visited them, finished work day in a few hours. Reported back and was asked:

    “Did you go to all of your locations?”

    “Yes.”

    “Great! Well, that’s all we have for you.”

    “You just paid me for a week of training to give me less than 2 days of work?”

    “Yes, well, it’s hard to know how long it’s going to take people.”

    “There’s NO MORE work for me? What about when the Census comes out?”

    “Oh, you’re welcome to submit another application as we will need people at that time, as well. Because you’ve already been hired once, your name will be at the top of the list.”

    The inefficiencies and money spent on this, especially during the recession, are quite staggering.