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Stand Up and Be Counted

Cameron Cushman

By now, every American should be aware that the U.S. government is conducting its decennial census, as mandated by the Constitution. Since this only happens every ten years, every approach to counting the number of people living in the U.S. is completely different, especially with the exponential growth in technology in the last few decades.

The Census Bureau, housed in the Department of Commerce, is using a mix of both old and new methods to get the word out and to track responses. The effort began with an initial mailing to every household in America saying that your census would be arriving soon. Then, the actual form arrived, which each American was supposed to fill out and send back. A third mailing was then sent a few weeks later, to make sure they didn’t miss anyone. Printing these extra forms will cost taxpayers about $42 million, but officials say the additional mailings will ultimately save more than $500 million that would have been used to hire temporary census takers.

According to the Wall Street Journal, this undertaking constituted 542 million pieces of mail, all sent through the U.S. Postal Service. If all of the forms were stacked on top of each other, they would reach twenty-nine miles high—five times as tall as Mount Everest.

Census is also doing some cool things to track response rates across the country. The census site allows users to see how their individual states are doing in comparison to the rest of the country. At the time of this post, the Upper Midwest had a sizable lead on the rest of the country.

Though this massive effort is required to make sure the government gets an accurate count of everyone living in the United States, it is sobering to note that if everyone mailed back their forms as instructed, taxpayers could reduce the cost of taking the census by about $1.5 billion. This is more than the entire Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) budget at the Department of Defense ($1.15 billion in FY2008).

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