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Blog: Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles
A Consensus on the Census: Counting On An Important Piece of Paper

Last week, Paper Doll received a number of messages from readers, friends and even Paper Mommy, all on the same point of frustration. You see, they'd received a letter from the government. I got the same letter, and I bet you did, too:

Dear Resident:

About one week from now, you will receive a 2010 Census form in the mail. When you receive your form, please fill it out and mail it in promptly.

Your response is important. Results from the 2010 Census will be used to help each community get its fair share of government funds for highways, schools, health facilities, and many other programs you and your neighbors need. Without a complete, accurate census, your community may not receive its fair share.

Thank you in advance for your help.


Robert M. Groves
Director, U.S. Census Bureau

The comments I received all came down to one main concern. Why was the government spending money sending mail to tell us they were going to send us mail? Why waste the postage? Why waste the paper?

I was surprised. I knew that in some circles, the Decennial Census can be controversial, but this was the first time I'd heard complaints about paper clutter! So, I hope Director Groves won't mind if I take the initiative and review some issues about the form that has a direct impact on the next ten years (and more) of our nation.

Why The Census?

The goal of the 2010 Census is to count every person living in the United States as of April 1, 2010. In a nation this populated and diverse, maybe that date calls to mind a fool's errand, but it's essential. It's also required by law.

Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution requires that a census be completed every ten years: "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 10 years, in such manner as they shall by Law direct." The first census was in 1790, via door-to-door visits from federal marshals, and 3,929,214 people were counted. We've continued counting every ten years, even through wartime. In 2000, the census counted over 281 million people.

The census counts, simply, how many people live where. This allows for apportionment of federal (and state) funds for:

Health services: emergency services, hospitals, community health providers

Social services: senior centers, schools (including teachers), job training programs

Infrastructure: highways, bridges, tunnels, transportation systems (buses, rapid transit, etc.)

The data collected doesn't just ensure an appropriate share of funding and the administration of programs. It also dictates our representation in government. If you recall your Social Studies classes, you know that the Decennial Census determines your state's apportionment in the House of Representatives.

Who Gets A Census Form?

Every household gets a form, from parents with 2.5 children to the Octomom...citizens, non-citizen residents, and the undocumented. Whether here legally or not, whether one has a traditional family household, lives alone with seven cats, or shares space with a flatmate who drinks your milk even when the carton is clearly labeled with your name, every household should be counted. The census also documents dorm-dwellers and others who live in collective housing, like long term care facilities and prisons.

What's Asked?

It's true, the census used to ask lots of questions. There's a reason it, like the 1040, was called The Long Form. One in six households used to get a...well, long form. It asked detailed social and economic questions. The household in which Paper Doll lived during the 1990 census included 7 graduate students, and we got the long form. Even those without compunction over providing personal information were weary of answering all those questions.

No more. The 2010 Census asks just ten questions, including name, age, gender, date of birth, ethnicity/race, and home ownership. Apparently the infamous census question about the presence of indoor plumbing has been deleted.

Want to see the questions now? The Census web site displays each of the 10 questions so you can have a sense of what you'll be asked. Strangers on airplanes volunteer (and ask for) information far more personal than these basic, mostly demographic, questions.

Privacy Issues

First, the purpose of the census is to obtain accurate but general statistical data. As the 2010 Census won't use the long form, there are no detailed questions about your social or economic situation. Plus, no Census Bureau employee is ever permitted to reveal any identifiable information about any person, household, or business--that includes names, addresses (including GPS coordinates), and telephone numbers. The penalty is up to $250,000 and five years in prison.

Next, by law (92 Stat. 915, Public Law 95-416), individual census records are sealed for 72 years. The odd number dates back to when life expectancy was less than 65 years, in order to protect the privacy of individuals by barring the release of personal information during someone's lifetime. (In 2002, the individual data for the 1930 census was released.)

[Records have not always been so well protected. During World War II, the Second Powers Act of 1941 repealed legal protection of census records and gave the FBI access to them. The Act was repealed in 1947, and subsequent cases have always upheld protection of census data.]

Let's assume that if you're reading Paper Doll, you're an adult--we'll say 18. The records from your census form will be made available in 2082, when you're 90. If you're 43, you'll be 115 when your individual census records will become available. Somehow, one doubts you'll feel particularly exposed.


Paper Doll uses this space for non-political purposes, but to be fair, I must acknowledge that the Decennial Census is not without controversy. For example, because the census is used for the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives (and of electors to the Electoral College), the counting of non-citizens in census figures is disputed.

Counting prisoners in the counties in which they are incarcerated (instead of at their prior residences) is seen as skewing the statistics on population and racial demographics. And not counting Americans traveling abroad fails to count Mormon missionaries, which citizens of Utah often feel lessens their proportional representation. (While other faiths, of course, also conduct missions, the geographic diversity is not believed to have as profound an impact on the Census figures of other states.)

The census uses hot deck imputation, a statistical method for "filling in the gaps" and assigning data when/where there is none -- a concern that could easily be minimized by more people filling in the forms!

All of these are issues worthy of debate, but in Paper Doll's opinion, these are issues related to the use of the data, and not the data collection, itself. Which brings us back to the paper.

Why the Preview Letter?

Why does the government send us mail telling us they're going to send us mail? Isn't it a waste of money?

If every person in this country had excellent time management skills, opened the mail on a daily basis and dependably mailed bills, RSVP cards and other replies, then yes, it would be a bit of a waste. But, collectively as a nation, we don't.

Professionals in consumer research (and anyone, like Paper Doll, who took lots of survey design courses in graduate school) will tell you that the best way to get a response is to tell target audiences what you will be seeking from them, then send the survey and even follow it with a postcard or other reminder. It's long been a lynchpin of Nielsen ratings survey methods. Medicare recently did the same thing with an optional survey. (Apparently Paper Mommy wasn't pleased by that extra paper, either.)

I think of these advanced warnings letters less as nagging and more like "Save the Date" cards that brides send out to make sure you'll give priority to their weddings. The government is inviting us to participate in something that is one of our few community obligations, and they're giving us a heads-up.

More importantly, they're saving money. Our money. The preview letters boost return rates, and the more forms returned, the fewer temp workers that have to be hired. In other words, people aren't the only things the Census Bureau counts--they're counting pennies, too. As Director Groves told the Wall Street Journal, "For every 1 percent increase in households that will respond by mail, taxpayers save about $85 million in operational costs associated with census takers going door to door", following up with households that didn't mail back the form. Research shows that using the preview letters for the 2000 Census boosted response by 6%; people have just forgotten they received those letters ten years ago.

The paper is recycled (and recyclable), the Census Bureau surely gets a break on postage, and the methods are proven to save money. (Maybe in 2020 they can send us e-vites?)

Don't Get Scammed

One last note. Unfortunately, the same swindlers who pretend to be Nigerian princes want to use the 2010 Census as an opportunity to separate you from the little green pieces of paper in your wallet. Don't let them.

The Census Bureau doesn't send emails. The Census Bureau doesn't send you to a link to answer questions online. There's no way to get paid for filling out census questions. There are no census contests whereby you can win a prize for giving additional information. No political party conducts the census.

If you don't mail back your form and are visited by a census taker, check to make sure he or she has a valid ID badge with an expiration date and a Department of Commerce watermark. Census takers are only allowed to ask you the same 10 questions as on the form, and are trained to do the survey outside the door, so be wary of anyone seeking entrance into your home or monetary solicitations. If you have any doubts, request the census taker's supervisor's contact information or call your regional Census Bureau office to verify an identity.

There is no cost to participate and the Census Bureau will never ask you for your credit or debit card number, PIN numbers, or any of your banking information. Ever.

Most importantly, the Census Bureau WILL NOT ASK FOR YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER.

Please share these anti-fraud facts with any young adults who will be participating for the first time and with any elderly or other friends or relatives whom you feel might be at risk for being scammed.

Familiarize yourself with what the Census Bureau has to say about fraud attempts, and report suspected fraudulent email to and fraudulent mail to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service at postalinspectors.uspis.gov.

If you receive a follow-up call to clarify information on your form, you can call the Census Bureau's National Processing Center before providing any information to make sure it's on the up-and-up. And if someone claiming to be a census taker shows up without the proper credentials, call the police.

Stand Up and Be Counted

The Decennial Census, with all of its related issues, is still the best way to make sure we have the health and human services and infrastructure we need, in the right proportions, and to comply with the Constitutional requirements regarding apportionment of representation in Congress. I encourage you to read and recycle Director Groves' preview letter, fill out the 2010 Census (10 questions in 10 minutes) and count yourself in!

posted on: 3/16/2010 10:30:00 AM by Julie Bestry
category: Paper

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Discuss This Post

by Susan McCool on 3/16/2010 11:55:24 AM:

Great article, Julie! Thank you for detailing the truths and unmasking the myths about the Census!

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Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles

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