FOOTNOTES January 2000
homeprev issuesexecpublic affairspub forumSTAFF
Census 2000: Counting on a Civic Moment

Terri Ann Lowenthal, Consultant, Census 2000 Initiative, and
Felice J. Levine, ASA Executive Officer

The long-awaited Year 2K has finally arrived, bringing with it two hallmarks of American democracy-a presidential election and a census. Political pundits and policy wonks alike will be watching both events for signs that the dramatic decline in civic participation has slowed, or perhaps even turned around. The challenge of public engagement is enormous. For political candidates, getting eligible voters to the polls on Election Day may be a greater obstacle to success than simply winning their support. For the U.S. Census Bureau, the extent of the task is far broader: reaching every resident of the United States, regardless of citizenship or residency status, criminal history, or age, and putting them in the right location.

The enormity of that challenge has not escaped Census Bureau Director Kenneth Prewitt, himself a social scientist by training. At his swearing-in ceremony in November 1998, Dr. Prewitt first raised the idea of the census as civic activity, saying that the Census Bureau has a "civic responsibility" to conduct the best decennial count it can.

The director joined the Bureau at a tumultuous time in the planning process for Census 2000. Congress and the Clinton Administration were engaged in a sometimes uncivil and clearly partisan fight over the Bureau's proposed use of statistical sampling techniques in the census. At various times during the lengthy dispute, the Census Bureau, the Commerce Department (its parent agency), and even the director-designate were targets of political arrows that questioned their competency and integrity. Yet, Dr. Prewitt came to the job with refreshing optimism and genuine respect for the Census Bureau professionals who soldiered on despite what the director called "uniquely difficult conditions." "I have just joined," Prewitt said in his first public remarks as director, "the most respected, the most accomplished statistical agency in the world."

Since he first alluded to the civic aspects of the census, Dr. Prewitt has tried to turn the concept of the census as civic activity into a motivating force to increase response rates in communities across the country. In testimony before Congress last fall, the director noted the decline in response rates each decade since 1970, the first census to rely universally on mailed questionnaires (except in remote areas). Census 2000 presents an opportunity, he said, to create "a civic ceremony" and to "reverse civic disengagement."

While Dr. Prewitt's mission is sincere, he is also a realist when it comes to motivating a diverse, mobile, and sometimes distrustful society to answer the census. He freely acknowledges that the paid advertising campaign, developed for the Census Bureau by Madison Avenue luminary Young and Rubicam, will focus its messages not on a call to civic duty but on the benefits of an accurate count for individuals, their families, and their communities. To put it bluntly, instead of an appeal to "what you can do for your country," the ads will focus on "what your country can do for you" if you participate in the census. The calculation of how best to persuade people to mail in their census forms or cooperate with a visiting enumerator is based on focus group research, as well as Census Dress Rehearsal evaluations. And while the Śbenefits strategy' may not achieve the inspirational tone of Dr. Prewitt's appeal to civic duty, the modern American axiom of "whatever works" is all that matters in the end.

Still, Dr. Prewitt is not giving up on his campaign to use the census as a vehicle for renewing civic engagement. At the December meeting of the Commerce Secretary's 2000 Census Advisory Committee (of which ASA is a member), the director issued a civic challenge to local communities: increase their mail response rates by five percent over 1990.

In 1970, 78 percent of households on the Bureau's address list returned their forms voluntarily. By 1990, that rate had dropped to 65 percent, far worse than even the Census Bureau's initial 70 percent estimate. Temporary enumerators had to track down the residents of more than one-third of all households, increasing the cost and diminishing the accuracy of the count. Not surprisingly, response varied substantially by geographic area. For all 449 local census offices, the mailback rate ranged from 39 percent to 83 percent. In 23 of the nation's 32 largest cities, response rates were below the national average; rates dipped below 55 percent in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, New Orleans, New York, and Washington, DC according to the General Accounting Office (GAO).

The disappointing response rate foreshadowed the troubling outcome of the 1990 census. For the first time since the Bureau used scientific tools in 1940 to measure census accuracy, the count was less accurate than the one before it. The net national undercount increased by 50 percent (1.8 percent in 1990 versus 1.2 percent in 1980, according to demographic analysis); the disproportionate undercount of racial minorities, at 4.4 percent, was the highest ever recorded. Despite a heroic effort by the Census Bureau, many stakeholders ­ including Congress ­ labeled the 1990 census a failure.

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the mail response rate to the success of the census. The cost estimate for the entire undertaking hinges largely on the number of households the Bureau projects will mail back their forms. Census enumerators must visit all households that do not respond voluntarily during the Śnonresponse follow up' phase of the count, and this fieldwork accounts for the largest portion of census costs. If mail response fails to meet expectations, the Census Bureau may run short of workers and money during the most difficult phase of the census. (The mail response rate, which reflects the portion of all housing units that return a questionnaire, differs from the mail return rate, which is the percent of occupied housing units mailing back forms. However, it is the response rate that affects both the cost estimates and the scope of the fieldwork, since the Census Bureau does not know whether an unresponsive housing unit is occupied or vacant until an enumerator visits. The mail return rate, calculated after the census is finished, is a truer measure of public cooperation. Like the overall response rate, the return rate from occupied housing units has dropped substantially since 1970, from 87 percent then to 74 percent in 1990).

In 2000, the Census Bureau is offering higher hourly wages than in 1990, when an inability to attract and retain enough temporary workers in some areas required the Bureau to increase pay rates and ask Congress for an emergency $100 million appropriation. The increased number of door-to-door visits resulting from lower-than-projected response rates also takes more time, lowering the quality of data collected. The GAO reported in its evaluation of the 1990 effort that nearly one in five people added to the census in July were counted erroneously; 30 percent of the additions in August through December were wrong. (Census Day is April 1). The need to keep local census offices and data processing centers open longer also contributes to the higher cost.

Conversely, a higher mailback rate not only reduces the field workload, it saves millions of dollars that can be redirected toward canvassing the hardest-to-count neighborhoods. The Census Bureau estimates that it will cost $25 million to count each one percent of the population that does not respond by mail in 2000; that figure rises to $50 million as enumerators try to track down the last ten percent or so of nonrespondents.

Dr. Prewitt is not waiting for the returns to start flowing in before attacking the response problem. He believes that only seven or eight percent of unresponsive households are truly "intractable," while the remaining "I cannot be bothered" households are more likely to cooperate, given the right incentives. He views his "plus 5" challenge to mayors and community leaders as a way to generate excitement about the census and promote a healthy competition between jurisdictions that he hopes will boost participation. The director estimates that, if every community topped its 1990 response rate by five percent, the overall national response rate would increase to 70 percent, well above the Census Bureau's current projection of 61 percent.

Starting in late March, after census forms are mailed to about 96 million addresses (another 24 million forms will be hand-delivered in remote areas and on most Indian reservations, to confirm addresses and location), the Census Bureau will track response rates on a daily basis and post the return rates on its web site (, neighborhood by neighborhood, town by town. This real-time progress report, widely available to the public for the first time via the Internet, will continue through the second week in April, when local census offices prepare to shift to the nonresponse follow-up operation. It will give local officials and community-based leaders the information they need to zero-in on neighborhoods where the count is lagging, while the national spotlight that will shine on the census is at its brightest.

Only time will tell whether the years of research, planning, and preparation will produce a more accurate census across all population subgroups and geographic areas. Just last month, in a report to Congress, the GAO warned that the Census Bureau's mail response goal might be overly optimistic, leading to a much larger field operation and difficulty hiring enough temporary enumerators to get the job done. The legislative watchdog agency recommended a contingency plan to avoid a counting meltdown.

Despite his own high expectations for Census 2000, Dr. Prewitt knows that complacency can be the Census Bureau's worst enemy. The Bureau has partnered with more than 20,000 national, state, and local organizations that it hopes will help ward off a collective national yawn when census forms arrive in mailboxes across the country. Common interest in an accurate census has brought together religious communities, education and child welfare advocates, civil rights organizations, business and labor, veterans, health care and housing providers, researchers and planners, and elected leaders - an unparalleled coalition of constituencies that candidates for political office can only dream of! So even if the first presidential election of the new millennium does not spark a rebirth in civic engagement, Dr. Prewitt is counting on the census to rekindle the fire of civic responsibility.