Census 2000 Nears Milestone for Returns Reaches Half-Way Mark despite Lag in Long Forms

By Peterson, Doug | Nation's Cities Weekly, April 10, 2000 | Go to article overview

Census 2000 Nears Milestone for Returns Reaches Half-Way Mark despite Lag in Long Forms


Peterson, Doug, Nation's Cities Weekly


More closely than the wide swings of the NASDAQ and Dow, cities and towns are watching their initial response rates to the Census move upward in daily reports on the Internet (www.census.gov) as the U.S Census Director views the slowly mounting returns with "cautious optimism."

The General Accounting Office, Congress' non-partisan investigative arm, says the 55 percent return rate reported by Census Day, April 1, "is consistent with the Bureau's expectations for this date." The planning goal used by the Census is a return rate of 61 percent. According to Prewitt, "We want to encourage the people of the United States to write the Census story themselves. If we reach the 61 percent planning goal it will still represent a continued decline in Census response rates, if we reach 56 percent we will have arrested the decline, if we reach 70 percent we will have experienced a stunning reversal."

Each 1 percent by which the mail-back response rate is increased represents 1.2 million more responses and saves an estimated $34 million in follow-up costs. By a mid-April cut-off date Census will compile lists and maps of all non-responding addresses and 500,000 temporary Census Bureau employees will begin phone calls and personnel visits (up to a combination of six) to complete the count. At this point the Bureau will also add in 375,000 addresses supplied by cities, towns and other local governments. These addresses were created through new construction, which was not complete at the time the Census compiled their master mailing list but was expected by the participating local government to be occupied by Census Day. This new procedure was created to respond to requests by many individual cities and NLC.

Long Form Discussions Dominate

Questions about controversy surrounding negative public reaction to the "intrusiveness" of long-form census surveys (sent to a sample of addresses) dominated both an April 4, Census Bureau Press Conference and a April 5, hearing before the House Subcommittee on the Census.

At the hearing, Prewitt reported that at this stage, the rate at which the long form is being returned lags behind the short form return rate by 12 percentage points. In 1990, the mail-back return rate of the long-form lagged behind short-form data by 6 percent. Thus, this interim report would indicate that the differential in response is twice that experienced in the 1990 Census. According to Prewitt, "This differential may close, and we are doing everything we can to assure the American public that long form data are important and confidential."

Prewitt also said that long-form data is always slower coming in, so that the final story is not in yet.

The statistic above does not answer the question about whether adverse comment and publicity about the long form will also result in more skipping of questions, even among those, which are returned. Even early indications of these trends will probably not be available for at least a month.

In response to repeated probing questions, Prewitt first emphasized the central importance of focusing on the message of census completion during this critical time window in the process. In response to another question is said, "We are on a collision course between an insatiable desire for information and a heightened sensitivity to privacy." The information gathered by the long form is a foundational element for benchmarking the official data for an information-based economy. He said this is "serious stuff" and if responses drop too far the bureau may not have sufficient confidence in the quality of certain data to report it. He said the detailed data contributed by the long-form, underpins data like the Consumer Price Index. According to Prewitt, "At some point it may impact the capacity of Greenspan to talk with the Congress about the economy."

Prewitt expressed the hope that this would be the last decennial census in which long-form data would need to be gathered. …

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