Is The U.S. Census A Waste Of Money?

By Remi Alli | April 20, 2010 AAA

Since 1790, an accurate population count has been gathered every 10 years which helps those in power to determine the distribution of tax dollars. The government spends billions on the census, and that amount has increased over the years in hopes of receiving a higher response rate from the U.S. public.

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The United States census determines the tax distribution into communities and neighborhoods, the number of congressional seats, funding for education and helps allocate government resources. The census also helps the government understand where improvements are needed and taxes help the government determine how much should be spent to maintain libraries, parks, highways, bridges, educational and social programs and other systems. (The services we rely on, like education, law and security, were built on taxes. Find out more in Paying Uncle Sam: From Tobacco To $1 Trillion.)

Price You Pay
If everyone completed the census without reminder notifications and advertisements, then there would not be a need for them, but people do not. Ten years ago, the United States spent roughly $4.5 billion on the census. This price fluctuates, however, depending on the amount of Federal dollars sent to each state for specific programs and how many representatives a state wants on Capitol Hill speaking on behalf of that state.

The roughly $20.00 per hour pay rate for 750,000 Census Bureau part-time workers, amounts to crafting the census kits, gas money to drive to citizen's homes to personally ask questions, and other related expenses.

Some believe that the several notifications and the over $50 million spent on census advertisements and reminders are examples of government waste and inefficiency. For example, many insist on an answer to why the government spent $2.5 million of taxpayer money for a half-minute commercial advertising the census placed during the Super Bowl. In the 2000 census, however, paid advertising was revealed to have increased the response rate through mail, while saving taxpayer money. (Taxpayers should be wary when a new "temporary tax" is introduced. Sometimes these temporary taxes are anything but. Learn more in "Temporary" Taxes That Stuck.)

2010 Computer Glitches Increased Census Budget
In 2010, the government projected to spend around $15 billion on the U.S. Census. Spending $15 billion to track approximately 309,237,000 U.S. citizens works out to roughly $49 per person to send out reminder cards and notifications, to show catchy commercials to remind citizens to fill it out and to hire employees to count the responses.

To make matters worse, The Washington Post has reported that computer glitches have driven up the census beyond its forecasted $15 billion price. The report states "those delays contributed to $1.6 million in clerical overtime costs in the first quarter, and the cost will probably rise in the next two months as census takers complete their work." The glitch is expected to throw the U.S. population count off.

Refusal Procedure
About 25-29% of the population refuses to answer a portion or the entirety of the census, and so far about 72% have mailed in their answers this year. The Census Bureau has a refusal procedure as some refuse to answer all of the questions. Those who opt to refuse can exercise this right to the doorknocker, explaining that they want to select the refusal procedure without giving actual names.

If this is not filled out, however, the Census Bureau may contact you, via phone or person. Ultimately, if citizens want local public schools to pay for that extra school trip, then the government better know that they exist.

Refusal is a Crime
If that's not an incentive to fill out the census, failing to respond to the census is a crime under the U.S. Constitution and could result in penalty fees and court time. Most, if not all, of the census envelopes actually state that it is required by law to respond.

Article I, Section 2 of the United States Constitution, states "representation and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this Union, according to their respective numbers … the actual Enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct."

Consequently, consistent with the law, any U.S. citizen over 18 years of age can be fined up to $100, for refusal to answer the required aspects of the census, and a fine upwards of $500 for false answers. (Wouldn't it be great to run up charges everywhere and then leave the bill for someone else to pay? That's exactly what happens in the federal government. Check out Budget Like The Government.)

Census Ensures Privacy
Tax filings cannot be used towards the Census; they are not accurate data as not everyone files, and tax information is subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FIA). Additionally, taxes only alert the government to how much is earned in annual income and can be revealed by a court-ordered subpoena. Census information, conversely, counts everyone, including illegal immigrants, and can only be used by the Census Bureau and is never subject to the FIA. (You know you're paying a big chunk of your income to taxes. But where is it going? Don't miss Your Taxes: Where Do They Go?)

The census usually states "As allowed by law, census data becomes public after 72 years (Title 44, United States Code, Section 2108). This information can be used for family history and other types of historical research." Thus, the actual individual census data will remain private for 72 years, but aggregate data, such as the numbers of households with children in private schools, will be reported immediately.

For example, the 1950 U.S. census will not be available for public view until April 2022. Thus, census information is not released until 72 years after it has been taken and until then it is private. The information given this year will not be available to the public until 2082, thus most will most likely not be around to view it.

Just a Waste?
While the census is particularly an expensive endeavor, the government is allowed what is required by law. Increasing response rates is important to ensure more accurate census results, but some are adamant that there may be a better and cheaper way.

Conducting a census is currently the most logical and necessary way known to calculate the current population and effectively distribute tax money. Ironically, enough, those who pay taxes fund the census. Thus, taxpayers can at least follow this rule of thumb; if you file taxes, fill out the census.

Don't forget to catch up on current financial events in Water Cooler Finance: Buffett Buzz, Toxic CDOs and Facebook Privacy.

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