U.S. Census Bureau

Census 2000

Statement of Census Director Kenneth Prewitt on the

How America Knows What America Needs Program

Press Conference, National Press Club

January 11, 2000



Whatever a decennial census is, the country now knows that it is not a dry, arcane statistical exercise. Its methods are debated in Congress and litigated before the Supreme Court; its operations are judged in every corner of the country and have become the focus of widespread media attention; its results are eagerly awaited by elected officials in thousands of cities, counties, and tribal lands. And why not -- the census counts affect power, money, group interests, civil rights, in short, who gets how much of what.

Can the census be about something even bigger and more important in public life? Today's press conference raises that possibility.

In preparing for the decennial census, now upon us -- the first enumeration takes place in only 10 days, in remote Unalakleet, Alaska -- the Census Bureau has been challenged by the American people, speaking through their representatives in Congress, to prepare for the best census in American history. We have met that challenge. The operational plan is in place, on schedule and on budget.

Does that suggest that we will have the most successful census in history? Not at all. A sound operational plan is the necessary, but not the sufficient, condition for the best census in history. That determination will be made by the people of this nation.

Today we issue our challenge. We ask every person in America to accept his or her responsibility for making the first census of the new century the most successful ever. We can reach that goal by recognizing that Census 2000 is a civic event. It is civic in its inclusiveness -- the constitution requires that the census count every resident in the country. It is civic in its consequences -- it underpins and ensures fair elections and our democratic system of political representation. It is civic in its legal foundation -- by law, every American household is expected to complete the form.

The larger challenge for the country is to transform what in its nature is a civic event into what could and should be the nation's first major civic ceremony of the new century.

The program we announce today has that ambition.

A census serves as a barometer of the country's civic health. That barometer has measured the troubling trend of declining levels of civic engagement.

This is clearly seen by comparing the 1980 and the 1990 censuses.

In 1980, three out of four housing units returned their census form by mail. Public cooperation with the follow-up effort by door-to-door census-takers was sufficient to allow a final count of 98.8 percent of the population, leaving only 1.2 percent uncounted.

By 1990, the mailback response rate had dropped sharply, to 65 percent. Public cooperation during the follow-up effort also declined, and the uncounted population increased by nearly a half-percent to 1.6.

The 1990 census was less complete than the 1980 census not because Census Bureau operations were less robust (in fact, they were much improved over 1980) but because the public's indifference to, and even cynicism about, civic responsibility had grown over the decade.

Which brings us to 2000. Current estimates by the Census Bureau indicate that the mailback response rate will be even lower than in 1990, trending down to approximately 61 percent. Cooperation rates during the non-response follow-up period can also easily worsen compared to 1990. A lower initial response rate coupled with public indifference during the follow-up effort will result in an enumeration with a higher undercount than 1990.

This will occur not because the Census Bureau does not want to or is not able "to count" but because people in this country do not care about or want to be counted.

Our task, as a nation, is to use Census 2000 to do something about the current levels of public indifference and cynicism. This will make for a better census, and also a better society.

I believe -- and I speak here not as a naively hopeful government bureaucrat but as an empirically trained social scientist -- that Census 2000 can become a moment of national civic engagement and pride. There are powerfully encouraging signals. The Census Bureau has been successful in its effort to find community and business partners, with approximately 35 thousand partner organizations now actively promoting the census. Twelve thousand cities, counties, and tribal governments have formed complete count committees. Thousands upon thousands of community groups, businesses, local governments, and media outlets are investing their own money, labor and time in improving the census count.

Today the Census Bureau, joined by the impressive array of official supporters, offers added help to that local community effort by launching How America Knows What America Needs.

This initiative is based on two simple challenges.

First, in '90 Plus Five, every community in America is challenged to improve its 1990 mail response rate by by at least five percentage points. The vast majority of census forms will reach households by the third week of March, and will start coming back to the Census Bureau soon thereafter. We have designed a system that will report to all 39 thousand jurisdictions in the country how many of their households have returned a questionnaire by March 27, and will update that information every 24 hours until April 11, when the mailback phase of the census operation is concluded. Each community will be measuring its performance against the baseline it set for itself in 1990. Where a community's response rate was 50% in 1990, its 2000 goal is 55%; where it was 85%, the task is to reach 90%.

Across the country, then, the goal is 70% -- an increase of nearly 10 percent over the Census Bureau's own estimate of what to expect in 2000.

Between March 27 and April 11 we will be taking the temperature of the civic health of the nation.

The second challenge is even more important. Assume that '90 Plus Five meets its challenge and 70% of the housing units return their form -- we have 36 million yet to be counted. That's a lot. These housing units have to be visited, at great cost, one by one, and often revisited and revisited before we get a response.

Because You Count is about this phase of the census, which operates for approximately 10 weeks starting in late April. Here the challenge in each community is to persuade the hard-to-find, the indifferent, the fearful, or the hostile to cooperate with census-takers who will be coming door to door. A census undercount, which has nagged every census since 1790, occurs in this phase. So also then, does the differential undercount, with its well-known implications for whether our system of political representation is fair, our spending of public funds is equitable, and our investment by the private sector is effective.

Can '90 Plus Five and Because You Count be successful? If so, Census 2000 will truly be a moment of national pride. We will celebrate a resurgence of community obligation and civic responsibility.

Here is what to watch for. If proportionately fewer American households return the census form than did so in 1990 and if levels of public cooperation with door-to-door census-takers repeat the 1990 experience, the several decade long decline in civic engagement continues and no one can know where it will bottom out. If the decline is reversed, take this as a healthy sign that the country intends to start the 21st century by embracing its civic responsibility. In early April, we will start taking our temperature.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau
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Last Revised: June 14, 2010 at 01:38:56 PM

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