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There has been some recent criticism about spending taxpayer money on advertising for the 2010 Census. Experience from the 2000 Census, however, shows that paid advertising can motivate people to respond to the census form by mail, while saving taxpayer dollars.
The Census Bureau projects for every one percentage point increase in the national mail back participation rate for the 2010 Census, the federal government saves $85 million in taxpayer money ― it costs substantially more money to send census takers to households that fail to mail back their short 10 question form than it does to receive it by mail.
Facing a three-decade decline in the national mail response rates 10 years ago in the 2000 Census, the Census Bureau launched its first ever paid advertising campaign to increase public awareness levels about the once-a-decade and Constitutionally mandated population count. Prior to that, the Census Bureau relied on public service announcements that aired whenever television stations and print media could fit it into their schedules as a pro bono advertisement. The end result was a 2000 Census that turned around the three-decade decline in response rates and exceeded the 1990 Census mail response rate of 65 percent. At the same time the 2000 Census reduced the differential undercount of minority groups compared to the rest of the nation. Because of the higher response rate the Census Bureau saved at least $305 million and returned that money to Congress following the census. The advertising campaign in the 2000 Census cost about $100 million, a $205 million return on investment.
Secretary of Commerce Don Evans testified before the Senate in 2001 and praised the Census Bureau for its outreach efforts. “The Bureau successfully implemented paid advertising for the first time in Census 2000, placing over $100 million in media buys designed to educate and motivate the public to respond,” Secretary Evans said.
In a separate Commerce Department report in 2001 ― Improving Our Measure of America: What Can Census 2000 Teach Us in Planning for 2010 ― the Inspector General Jonnie Frazier (1997-2007) said “Census 2000's paid advertising and partnership campaign achieved its intended goal ― the response rate of 67 percent surpassed the 1990 response rate of 65 percent, despite projections of lower participation. The campaigns should be repeated for 2010, and perhaps expanded to reach greater numbers of people from hard-to-count populations.”
Since the 2000 Census, survey participation rates at the Census Bureau have continued to decline. Further, recent surveys have shown that the public tends to be unaware of the basic features of the Census. The Census Bureau's 2010 Census communications campaign is one of the most diverse in U.S. history with questionnaires in six languages, the first ever bi-lingual English/Spanish form, questionnaire assistance guides in 59 languages and advertising in an unprecedented 28 different languages.
“Funding an integrated communications campaign was a business decision for the Census Bureau driven by the desire to save costs and taxpayer money,” Census Bureau director Robert Groves said. “By investing in an awareness and motivation campaign now, we can encourage more people to take 10 minutes to fill out the 10 question form and mail it back when it arrives in March.”
In addition to advertising, the Census Bureau has also launched other initiatives including a national road tour traveling to communities to increase awareness that the census is coming, a partnership program that now has more than 185,000 partners nationwide, and a Census in Schools program seeking to educate students about the nation's population and how it has changed since the first census in 1790.
“I'd like nothing more than to return money once again back to the taxpayers following this census because they mailed back the census forms at a record rate,” Groves said. “In the end, the American public's willingness to participate in the 2010 Census will determine its success and how much money we're able to save and return back to Congress.”
The 2010 Census is a count of everyone living in the United States and is mandated by the U.S. Constitution. Census data are used to apportion Congressional seats to states, to distribute more than $400 billion in federal funds to tribal, state and local governments each year and to make decisions about what community services to provide. The 2010 Census form will be one of the shortest in U.S. history, consisting of 10 questions, taking about 10 minutes to complete. Strict confidentiality laws protect the respondents and the information they provide.