Census Spending Cuts Raise Concerns On Count

Census Spending Cuts Raise Concerns on Count

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 26, 2008; Page A11

The Census Bureau plans to cut spending on advertising and community outreach for the 2010 census by at least a fourth compared with the 2000 census, provoking concern among congressional overseers that historically difficult-to-count groups such as minorities and illegal immigrants will not be accurately tallied.

Although the reduction was part of the fiscal 2009 budget proposed to Congress by the administration in February and was reflected in a stopgap budget resolution adopted by Congress last month, several members of Congress said they did not become aware of the change until two weeks ago, when their staffers asked Census Bureau employees to brief them on details of the marketing plan.

The news adds to congressional dismay over the bureau's decision in the spring to scrap a plan to use wireless handheld devices to collect information from people who do not mail back their census forms. Technical problems with the devices forced the agency to switch back to its original pencil-and-paper-based system, adding between $2.2 billion and $3 billion to the $11.5 billion cost.

“It makes no sense that we are spending less than [in] 2000 on marketing the census when the challenges we face in 2010 are even greater,” said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee that oversees the Census Bureau. “I would have liked to have said [my response] was shock, but given what the Bush administration has done to the census, it is regrettably not surprising.”

Despite such concerns, congressional staffers said increasing the bureau's marketing budget would prove a tall order in the current economic climate.

During the 2000 count, the Census Bureau launched an aggressive, multimillion-dollar marketing campaign featuring professionally produced television and radio spots as well as partnerships with 140,000 community advocates, religious leaders, local governments, educational institutions and other groups. The effort was credited with helping to reverse four decades of declining response rates.

Boosting the mail-back rate generated substantial savings by cutting the number of costly follow-up visits that census workers needed to make to households that had not returned their forms. It also gave those workers more time to visit minorities, immigrants and the poor — who are more likely to lack fixed addresses or to find census forms confusing and therefore be less likely to mail them back.

Census workers could face even more difficulties in 2010 because of increased fears of identity theft and the rapid rise in the minority and immigrant populations over the past decade, said William A. Ramos, director of the Washington office of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

“With all the discussion of immigration reform, and the negativity in particular with respect to Latinos, there's especially going to be a lot of trepidation about filling out a government document,” said Ramos, whose group sits on the Census Bureau's advisory council for the 2010 census.

So Ramos and others said they assumed the bureau would spend at least the same amount, if not more, on the marketing campaign for 2010. Instead, the total budget of $213 million represents about 76 percent of the 2000 amount in inflation-adjusted dollars. The $93 million paid-media component is about 57 percent of the 2000 expenditure, while a widely regarded schools outreach program will get only a third of the 2000 funding level.

Arnold Jackson, associate director for the decennial census, said his agency “would obviously like to have more money, and if we get an opportunity we'll certainly ask for more. However, we think we have a very effective and robust program with the resources we have in hand.”

In particular, Jackson said, the advertising effort is being coordinated much more closely with the bureau's community partners than it was in 2000. In addition, for the first time the bureau will be sending bilingual Spanish-English questionnaires as well as a second mailing to households that do not respond to the first one — a measure that testing suggests can increase mail-back rates by as much as 8 percent.