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Costs of the Census; Some Good News

Tue Aug 10 2010
Robert Groves
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There have been many reasonable critiques of the costs of the decennial census. At many public events I have shared my own judgment that we must reduce the costs of the next census. While the spending that occurred before 2009 had a variety of complicated causes, I am rather proud of what the collective Census Bureau staff has accomplished on cost controls since I arrived in July 2009.

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Today, we announced that we will return to the Treasury not less than $1.6 billion of our budgeted funds for 2010. That’s about 22% of the total amount Congress gave us to do the job this year. While we’re not finished with the operations of the 2010 Census, we’re confident we can finish up a professional job without calling on that $1.6 billion.

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How did this happen?

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A big part of the 2010 Census advertising campaign delivered the message that completing and mailing back the form saved us taxpayers large amounts of money. The American people really came through, exceeding our estimates on the mail return of questionnaires. This made the costs of the Nonresponse Followup phase much lower than we were prepared to spend.

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In addition, the temporary census workers we hired, in this time of high unemployment rates, were just spectacular. They put in the hours; they worked more efficiently than we were expected; they made our field processes go smoothly.

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To be fair, about $800 million of the savings was due to good fortune. That’s how much we set aside for contingencies such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, or a massive H1N1 flu pandemic. Each of these events might have made it more difficult to hire folks, or to gain cooperation of the public. Those things and other bad events did not happen, so we never had to tap our contingency funds.

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We also saved hundreds of millions due to good management practices by the career-staff leaders of the 2010 Census. We had a net savings of $150 million from our other operations, such as the enumeration of Group Quarters and special count of American Indian Reservations, which all came in under budget.

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One of the burdens I felt most deeply over the past year was trying to be a wise steward of the taxpayers’ money, in this time of fiscal suffering across the nation. My colleagues at the Census Bureau did a superb job at achieving these cost efficiencies. We should all salute the nearly 1 million people who served their country in such an efficient manner.

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