Why you should celebrate National Census Day

The Census gets more challenging every ten years.

A day as special as today only comes once every decade – National Census Day. It’s not as much a holiday as the day that the US government really, really hopes that everyone will turn their Census forms in, and contribute to an accurate count of every person now living in the United States.

The decennial Census was established back in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention, as a way for national power to be distributed proportionately for local populations. The U.S. Census Bureau is mandated by the Constitution to conduct the count.

“Over time the Census has evolved a lot. It used to be conducted by US marshals on horseback,” said Mark Mather, a demographer at the Washington, D.C.-based Population Reference Bureau who uses the Census to track US population trends. “Today, it’s basically a mail out, mail back process. The census is sending out forms to 120 million addresses nationwide, every address that they could track down.”

Mather said that the census gets more challenging every year. Check out this Census tabulator from 1890, and compare it to today’s $14 billion budget for the Census, including a high-profile marketing campaign and 600,000 temporary Census workers.

The reason why local governments are so invested in the Census (the New York Times tells of New York City’s push to get immigrants to fill out their forms) is because a big chunk of change is involved – $400 billion in federal funding, divided up on the basis of the population count.

Mather said that the average rate response to the initial mailing – meaning, how many people send back their forms by today – is 67%. “For every percentage point drop in that mail response rate, it costs the Census Bureau up to $90 million to track down non-responding households,” he said. “They either have to contact them by phone, or go knock on their door to collect the information.”

So, why don’t people just send back their forms and save the country a whole lot of money? As the NYT article points out, a lot of people are suspicious of the Census. They may not know what the Census is about or why it’s happening, or they believe that giving personal information to the government is sketchy.

One of the most important things to know about the Census, says Mather, is that it’s safe. “The Census is pretty benign when you consider all the information that private organizations are collecting about people these days,” he said. (Did you use Google today, by the way?) “So it’s safe, and it’s important and it doesn’t take much time to fill out.”

This year’s Census form only asks ten questions, none too invasive. (More socioeconomic questions come in the randomly mailed American Community Survey, conducted every year, and replaces the long Census form.) But Mather said that the importance of the Census – from the demographer’s perspective – is that it provides a snapshot of the country’s age, growth, and diversity, right down to the city block. It’s like Google Street View for basic population statistics.

The counting effort will go through July, and if you want to take a look at the numbers for yourself, they’ll be publically available by the end of the year.

Lindsay Patterson