Census Aims to Move Into the Future

Terry Stamm doesn't mind filling out a Census form every 10 years, but he does take issue with a couple of things.

One, the quaint methods the government still uses (snail mail, pen and paper, door-to-door visits). Two, the skyrocketing cost ($14.7 billion for the 2010 Census).

"There's got to be a better way," says Stamm, 54, a small business owner in Overland Park, Kan. "We just need to find a more efficient way to do it. Spending billions of dollars is ridiculous."

The sentiment is shared by many.

As hundreds of thousands of workers knock on doors this summer to collect information for the 2010 Census, momentum is mounting to drag future Censuses into the 21st century.

This year's Census may be the last to be filled out completely by hand and conducted primarily through mailings and home visits.

Almost certain for 2020: many people logging onto a secured Census website and filling out the form with a few keystrokes instead of pen, paper and a pre-addressed envelope.

"Using the Postal Service was an enormous innovation in 1970" when Census forms were first mailed (previous Censuses were door-to-door surveys), said Margo Anderson, a professor of history and urban studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an expert on Census history. "We're 40 years later, and the mail isn't the official way most people get their information or communicate. It's really outmoded."

Census Bureau Director Robert Groves agrees.

"We need to be serious about saving money," said Groves, who oversees a Census that will cost almost $50 a person when it's done — 66 percent more than the 2000 Census "The easiest way to do that is reduce the number of people involved in the collection of data."

The cost of the Census has mushroomed for several reasons.

Technical glitches forced the agency to scrap expensive handheld devices it had planned for door-to-door canvassing. About 650,000 temporary workers were hired to go door-to-door to millions of households that failed to return the Census form by mail. An unprecedented $340 million promotional blitz unfolded — featuring an ad during the Super Bowl in February, Census trailers crisscrossing more than 150,000 miles nationwide to urge Americans to participate, and public service ads targeting racial and ethnic groups and non-English speakers in 28 languages.

Groves last month asked Roderick Little, a University of Michigan biostatistician, to explore ways to get more people to participate in future Censuses. The goal: Increase efficiency and keep costs down.

"In the developed countries, the traditional ways of measuring folks by doing face-to-face interviews in their homes are being supplemented with other modes — mail, phone," Groves said. "We could be adding a fourth: the Internet."

Canada introduced an Internet option in 2001 for the census it conducts every five years. In 2006, less than 20 percent of households filled out the survey online, but more are expected to take part in 2011.

In the USA, the Internet won't eliminate the costliest challenge the Census Bureau faces: persuading people who don't want to participate to do so.

"It won't solve all our problems," Groves said. He predicts the Census ultimately will use a combination of methods, from an online form to some reliance on administrative records such as birth certificates.

"Some ideas will work," he said. "Some ideas won't."

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