April 1 is officially “Census Day” — no fooling!


Article I, section 2, of the Constitution requires the populations of the various states to be enumerated every 10 years. The first such census was conducted in 1790; its main purpose was to apportion seats in the House of Representatives among the original 13 states.

The Founders scarcely could have foreseen the stunningly costly and politically sensitive undertaking the census now has become.

There is much at stake. Census figures will be used to shift representation in Congress from states where populations have declined since 2000 to those where they have grown. By 2012, every state also will have redrawn its own legislative district boundaries to reflect recent population trends.

Moreover, the 2010 headcount will determine how every state and community fares over the next decade when federal funds are allocated for a host of social programs, including health care and job training; highway, bridge and tunnel construction; public education; and much else. The jackpot of taxpayer-financed loot to be doled out based on census results now amounts to about $400 billion. With federal spending reeling out of control, billions more likely will be up for grabs.

How much will it cost to count noses this year? No one really knows. The Census Bureau began planning for 2010 immediately after 2000. It is not yet fully ready. Preparations for 2010 have been plagued by fraud, cost-overruns and failures of computer hardware and software.

In a report published in June 2006, the Government Accountability Office raised grave concerns about the transparency and accuracy of the bureau’s cost estimates for the 2010 census, citing among other things assumptions about savings that would be realized by equipping census workers with hand-held mobile computing devices rather than paper forms (although potentially fatal problems with those devices had been evident in 2004 field tests) and the absence of a strategy for updating address and map files for areas impacted by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Even then, the 2010 census promised to be the most expensive in history, estimated to cost $11.3 billion, after adjusting for inflation.

The GAO was prescient. Hand-held computing devices have been abandoned and paper census forms will again be used. The Census Bureau is scrambling to implement a paper-based operations control system (PBOCS) for tracking submitted forms and, more important, to coordinate visits by census workers to every household that fails to return the form it receives in the mail. (Non-response is the census’s main cost driver.) But PBOCS itself has suffered serious technical problems in the few areas where it has been deployed.

Meanwhile, estimated costs have skyrocketed to $14.7 billion. According to February 2010 testimony by the Commerce Department’s Inspector General, the Census Bureau routinely has overspent on pre-census activities. It budgeted $356 million for address canvassing in 2009 and exceeded it by 25 percent ($88 million).

And the main show is still to come.

The bureau will spend $338 million on advertising and promotional materials (produced in 28 languages) meant to persuade people to complete and return their census forms.

The 2010 Census of Population will by all appearances be a major boondoggle. The only saving grace is that the “long-form” has been dropped in favor of the “short form,” thereby economizing somewhat on respondents’ time. Still, based on current estimates, it will cost an average of $47 per person to conduct this year’s head count—not including the value of householders’ time filling out paper forms.

The Census Bureau initially planned to allow people to respond to its queries online, but canceled that option in the face of privacy concerns. Along with other IT misfires, the 2010 census essentially will be conducted the same way it was in 1790—and may well be less accurate.

One would hope that by 2020, census bureaucrats will at long last move forward from the 18th century into the 21st century and take advantage of modern computer-based information technologies. Considering its performance leading up to the 2010 census that hope is faint.