The “pre-Census” letter: Your tax dollars hard at work

Got home this afternoon, checked the mail, and what did I see? A letter from the Census Bureau informing me that … I’d be receiving the Census in about a week, along with a note that it was important that I fill it out.

Are you kidding me?

A friend of mine Tweeted last night that she got the letter. In fact, according to the CB itself, approximately 120,000,000 US residents will receive the same letter:

Early Notification Increases Awareness That Census Forms Will Arrive Soon

The U.S. Census Bureau today began mailing advance letters to about 120 million addresses nationwide, notifying households that 2010 Census forms will be arriving March 15-17. The one-page letter urges households to complete the 10-question census form when it arrives and to return it in the accompanying prepaid envelope as soon as possible.

“The advance letter helps people know that their 2010 Census form will be arriving soon,” said Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves. “It’s an important reminder about the impact the census has on our communities, that the census is important and that everyone needs to participate.”

Census Bureau research shows that reaching out to respondents with an advance letter and reminder postcard if necessary can boost census mail-back rates and save money. For every 1 percent increase in households that respond by mail, taxpayers save about $85 million in operational costs associated with census takers going door to door to follow up with households that did not mail back the form.

The more than 120 million households that receive both the advance letter and 2010 Census form by mail represent about 90 percent of all residential addresses in the country. Census workers last week started hand-delivering census forms to another 9 percent of addresses in areas where many households lack traditional city-style postal addresses. Hand-delivery of 2010 Census forms is also occurring along hurricane-affected areas of the Gulf Coast. Less than 1 percent of households are in areas where it’s more efficient for census takers to conduct census interviews rather than drop-off and require mail-back of the form.

The advance letter includes messaging in five languages other than English (Spanish, Chinese [simplified], Korean, Vietnamese and Russian) directing people to visit the 2010 Web site for in-language assistance. For the first time in U.S. census history, the Census Bureau is sending a bilingual advance letter and form to more than 13 million households in areas where Spanish is predominantly spoken at home.

The text of the advance letter is as follows:

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.

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

Go to <> for help completing your 2010 Census form when it arrives. [Note: this sentence is repeated in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Russian]

Indeed – it was on mine. How helpful. And, overall, how wasteful this is of your tax $$ and mine. But since when did the Obama admin care about .. oh, hell. I don’t even have to ask.

Turns out, a lot of people are questioning why the “pre-Census” letters were sent out. The WaPo’s “Behind the Numbers” blog tries to get to the bottom of it all:

As “Census Day” approaches, the U.S. Census Bureau has come under fire for some of its edgier attempts to encourage people to respond to its mailings, and now, some have begun to take umbrage with standard technique – the advance letter.

On National Review’s The Corner, John J. Miller questions the mailing itself while Bill S. on RedState writes, “I’m having a difficult time deciding if this letter is: 1. Supposed to be helpful or informative in some way. 2. A joke. 3. Some sort of Obama stimulus plan for the postal workers. 4. My imagination.”

But to those in the survey research world, including the Census Bureau’s new director, Robert M. Groves, the letters are standard operating procedure. The bulk of the research on the topic finds that advance letters explaining the purpose and benefits of survey research improve response rates.

For an effort like the Census, which attempts to contact more than a hundred million households, the educated bet is that the cost of postage and printing for the preliminary letters saves subsequent future outlays in sending Census workers to follow-up with those who don’t return the questionnaires.

The Bureau’s announcement of the letters puts a dollar amount on response rates, “Census Bureau research shows that reaching out to respondents with an advance letter and reminder postcard if necessary can boost census mail-back rates and save money. For every 1 percent increase in households that respond by mail, taxpayers save about $85 million in operational costs associated with census takers going door to door to follow up with households that did not mail back the form.”

ROTFLMAO. And the Census workers must “follow up” with those households that didn’t take time to fill out the form why, exactly? Why not save that $85 mil to begin with and not have the Census workers going door to door in the first place? I know – what a radical suggestion! Why radical? Because less people returning their Census forms to the USG means the they won’t know as much about how to “properly” and “fairly” “spread the wealth” – and we know that’s most definitely not how the BarryO administration operates. As John Fund wrote last February:

President Obama said in his inaugural address that he planned to “restore science to its rightful place” in government. That’s a worthy goal. But statisticians at the Commerce Department didn’t think it would mean having the director of next year’s Census report directly to the White House rather than to the Commerce secretary, as is customary. “There’s only one reason to have that high level of White House involvement,” a career professional at the Census Bureau tells me. “And it’s called politics, not science.”

The decision was made last week after California Rep. Barbara Lee, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Hispanic groups complained to the White House that Judd Gregg, the Republican senator from New Hampshire slated to head Commerce, couldn’t be trusted to conduct a complete Census. The National Association of Latino Officials said it had “serious questions about his willingness to ensure that the 2010 Census produces the most accurate possible count.”

Anything that threatens the integrity of the Census has profound implications. Not only is it the basis for congressional redistricting, it provides the raw data by which government spending is allocated on everything from roads to schools. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also uses the Census to prepare the economic data that so much of business relies upon. “If the original numbers aren’t as hard as possible, the uses they’re put to get fuzzier and fuzzier,” says Bruce Chapman, who was director of the Census in the 1980s.

Mr. Chapman worries about a revival of the effort led by minority groups after the 2000 Census to adjust the totals for states and cities using statistical sampling and computer models. In 1999, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Department of Commerce v. U.S. House that sampling could not be used to reapportion congressional seats. But it left open the possibility that sampling could be used to redraw political boundaries within the states.

Such a move would prove controversial. “Sampling potentially has the kind of margin of error an opinion poll has and the same subjectivity a voter-intent standard in a recount has,” says Mr. Chapman.


The larger debate prompted seven former Census directors — serving every president from Nixon to George W. Bush — to sign a letter last year supporting a bill to turn the Census Bureau into an independent agency after the 2010 Census. “It is vitally important that the American public have confidence that the census results have been produced by an independent, non-partisan, apolitical, and scientific Census Bureau,” it read.

The directors also noted that “each of us experienced times when we could have made much more timely and thorough responses to Congressional requests and oversight if we had dealt directly with Congress.” The bill’s chief sponsor is New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who represents Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

“The real issue is who directs the Census, the pros or the pols,” says Mr. Chapman. “You would think an administration that’s thumping its chest about respecting science would show a little respect for scientists in the statistical field.” He worries that a Census director reporting to a hyperpartisan such as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel increases the chances of a presidential order that would override the consensus of statisticians.

The Obama administration is downplaying how closely the White House will oversee the Census Bureau. But Press Secretary Robert Gibbs insists there is “historical precedent” for the Census director to be “working closely with the White House.”

Uh huh.

As to the cost of the mailings, Minnesota Public Radio’s Bob Collins did the math and came up with these numbers:

There were 105,480,101 households in 2000. At 500 sheets of paper per ream, that’s 210,960 reams of paper for the letter. It’s cheap paper, though. At $40 a case, Office Max has the cheapest price I could find online, so that’s $843,000 for the paper.

Five-hundred envelopes go for $30. That’s another $6.3 million (I’m rounding up and down here; it’s the government afterall).

Finally, there’s the cost of mailing. It’s presorted first-class mail. According to the U.S. Postal Service Web site, pre-sorted mail costs .335, although a standard rate letter could be sent for 17 cents. But this was first-class. Total: $35,335,833.83.

Total: $42.5 million (although I remain somewhat skeptical about the postage) to send you a letter to tell you you’re going to get another letter next week. Oh, and sending a postcard would’ve been $15.8 million cheaper.

The average person pays $13,000 in federal taxes per year. So it took the annual federal taxes of nearly 327 taxpayers to send you the letter.

To borrow a line from Collins, sending out advance letters notifying you that you will soon be receiving the Census is an idea that just doesn’t make census. That is, unless you’re a career bureaucrat/”healer” who enjoys seeing government grow and grow and grow and …

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