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A Surprise Reaction

Fri Apr 23 2010
Robert Groves
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Congratulations to the American public for a remarkable display of civic participation that exceeds the expectation of many about the mailback participation!

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As a long-time survey researcher, I have studied the influences on survey participation and tried to understand why some people respond and others do not. Despite all this research, response rates in surveys have declined each year throughout the western world. I fully expected the census to achieve lower participation rates this decade than it did in 2000.

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It basically didn’t happen. The exact comparison depends on which days you examine and whether you include both the long form and the short form results from 2000, but the evidence is pretty clear that we matched or exceeded what happened in 2000.

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If you ask your friendly neighborhood survey researcher if they could achieve the same response rates in their surveys as they did ten years ago, I strongly suspect they would burst out laughing.

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How was this success achieved?

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It will take awhile to diagnose all the ingredients of the success, but our findings show that the local partners who got out the message to their neighbors, the paid media, and the PR campaign greatly increased awareness of the census from December 2009 to April 1, 2010. The data are also pretty clear that the replacement form was effective. The census tracts that received the replacement form clearly exceeded their performance in 2000. Although we don’t have data yet to prove this, I also suspect the short-form-only design was a winner.

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The U.S. is a large, very diverse country. We know people who are angry and scared about their economic state and questioning whether government is helping make things better. Many report very low levels of trust in basic institutions. Despite all these negative signs in our society today, we have seemed to come together and responded at unanticipated levels.

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This only marks the half way point for the 2010 Census. There is much hard work ahead to follow up on the approximately 48 million households that did not mail back a form, and risks remain. We need to continue to have the public’s cooperation to reach our final goal of a complete and accurate count of every person in the country.

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Please submit any questions pertaining to this post to

Director Robert Groves

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