Friday, March 19, 2010

A Message from the Central Bureaucracy

The first United States Census occurred in 1790—in other words, it’s been going on longer than anybody’s lifetime—and happens every ten years. This makes it fantastically easy to remember: if the current year ends with a 0 (like, for example, 2010), it’s time for a Census. While I don’t pay much attention to the news or to current events, and was a distracted and often disinterested student from elementary school all the way through 5.5 years of college, I always assumed that it was more or less common knowledge that the Census was coming this year.

Silly of me, I know.

Based on the exposure it’s gotten lately, it was apparently far from common knowledge that the Census was happening, or even that it ever existed in the first place. We (that is, somebody in the government) paid roughly $2.5 million to air a Super Bowl commercial about it, responses to which covered the broad range between “Is that the guy from St. Elsewhere?” and “this is as pointless as that Tim Tebow thing.”

I didn’t think too much of this at the time, though, because, as a die-hard football fan, I was far too focused on the Super Bowl and whichever teams were playing1 to pay attention to the commercials.

This commercial came to mind, though, when I received a letter from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Census Bureau that informed me that
About one week from now, you will receive a 2010 Census form in the mail. When you receive your form, please fill it out and mail it in promptly.
In short, the Census Bureau sent out some 115 million letters to tell us that we were about to receive a letter, and, as it turns out, about a week or two after the census forms are received, we’re all to receive postcards to notify us that we’ve all received our census forms.

I understand that the U.S. Postal Service is struggling and could really use the work, but I’m not convinced that we need to receive two pieces of mail—ones that we’re paying for, of course—to tell us about another piece of mail that either we’re about to get or we’ve already gotten (and that we’ve also paying for).

If there are roughly 115 million households in the U.S., it stands to reason that we’re paying for approximately 230 million of these pointless little reminders. I don’t want to sound like a Tea Party member2 or anything, but this seems to me to be a good example of our government spending our money stupidly.

According to the government’s 2010 Census website, this system
was developed to get the highest mail-return rate possible. Our studies have shown that mailing a letter telling you that a form is on the way and, after the forms have been mailed out, sending a postcard reminding you to respond increases the mail-return rate.
Now, given that our government3 has kept itself busy by firing our money out of its ass in every conceivable ill-advised direction in quantities that stagger the imagination,4 maybe it’s useless to quibble over a paltry couple hundred million dollars. But it’s a shame to realize that the Census Bureau is operating under the assumption that we have no brains in our heads (and it’s at least as much of a shame that they apparently have studies to back this up). And it’s hard to believe they couldn’t have found a less ridiculous and senseless way of enticing people to return their Census forms.

Just off the top of my head, I’d have to say that it’d probably be at least as effective—and certainly far less wasteful—if the government were to print, on the census-form envelope itself, some sort of statement about how important the census is . . . or maybe a brief, easily-noticeable sentence about the legal consequences about failing to return the form.

Aw, what the hell, just forget it. That’s a stupid idea anyway. It’d never work, and there’s no way such a complex notion could be phrased succinctly enough to fit on an 8.5" x 11" envelope.

1. Red Wings vs. Celtics, I think.
2. Official motto: “We’re insane as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”
3. Under, mind you, not only the current administration but also previous ones. I’m not trying to place blame on any single major party full of incompetent boobs.
4. That sounded pretty Tea Party-ish of me, didn’t it? Damn it.


  1. Sorry, but I have to be critical here. The advance letter seems silly at first blush, but I think it's way too easy to put this in the "government waste my money" pile.

    Using your estimate of 115,000,000 households in the US, and assuming the government payed full price on 115 million $0.44 stamps (which I highly doubt), those letters cost about $51 million to send out. That's a lot of money.

    But, for every census form NOT returned, the census bureau must send out a person to that address to gather the census information (this may seem silly, too, but it's in the Constitution... so even though it may be silly, it's silly with some weight behind it).

    Naturally, these people who go out to all corners of the country knocking on people's doors must be trained; provided official census bureau IDs, pens, and paper; given vehicles and gas money; and paid for their time. Even without considering the number of repeat visits it will take to make contact with some households, we're talking about a massive amount of manpower required, just to take care of all the people who didn't send in the form the first time.

    Here's the kicker: the Census Bureau estimates that the advance letters increase the return rate of the census forms by 6-12% (*). (We can gripe about why we're so stupid that something like that works, but it does work. Anybody in sales will tell you that if you suggest something early, you'll get a better response later.) So we're looking at between 7 and 14 million households who, because of the advance letter, will send in their form promptly and will not require a home visit.

    Bottom line: for the advance letter to be a waste of money, we'd have to assume that the government could have gathered the information from 7-14 million people for less than 51 million dollars. Splitting the difference and going with 10 million homes, we're looking at $5.10 per household to get this job done. We couldn't even get illegal immigrants to work for that cheap.

    Let's assume the job can be done at a rate of $20 per household... a number I have completely pulled from my ass but I feel is probably way, way too low. For 10 million households, that $54 million saved us $200 million.

    Basically, there's no way these letters cost us money... in fact, they save us a TON of money. Thanks, government!

    *- I heard that number on the Daily Show the other night. Found it again online here, along with some different numbers than the ones I came up with:

  2. Okay, fair enough, sending out advance notices and/or after-the-fact reminders postcards isn’t as stupidly expensive as I figured it was at first grump, and it’s almost certainly way less expensive than sending out census workers from door-to-door. But if sending out additional notifications actually does have a positive effect, and doesn’t cost all that much money, that just highlights a different way in which the Census Bureau is being stupidly wasteful: by sending out census workers despite having an obvious and (by their own statistics, effective) way of cutting costs and increasing response.

    If sending multiple notifications is way cheaper than sending out actual live census workers and increases the number of responses, why not just send a second round of reminders, or even a second round of census forms?

    Clearly the Census Bureau can keep track of who hasn’t turned in their forms—otherwise they wouldn’t know where to send the census workers—and therefore it is also equipped to prevent duplicate forms from slipping through (in the same way that it would be able to track when census workers duplicate forms that are mailed in or received late), so they could either send out a whole extra 115 million forms or specifically mail to those folks who hadn’t sent their first forms in.

    If sending three pieces of mail to everybody in the country is much cheaper than sending out census workers to all the folks that don’t respond, doesn’t it stand to reason that sending a fourth piece of mail is probably going to be cheaper too? It seems to me that the Census Bureau is basically saying that once you’ve done the relatively efficient and inexpensive thing once, it’s okay to go ahead and go back to the expensive and inefficient option instead of trying to be smart twice in a single decade.

    Excellent use of footnotes, by the way. I heartily approve. I'm a bit puzzled, though, that you seen to use them to pass along legitimate information. That's very strange to me.

  3. Well, the theory of diminishing returns is going to make the continued sending of notices less and less efficient. Four letters will not be twice as effective as two. When we factor both the cost AND the limited timeframe the census guys are given to complete the task, I'm sure there's a tipping point at which it makes more sense to just go out there and hunt people down rather than continuing to send reminders.

    If they're doing one letter before, and one after the actual census form, we're at two already. What I don't know is whether the 6-12% estimate is for just the advance letter, or represents the expected jump for the combination of the two letters. But if the first one gives them 6-12% more, and the second "reminder" one gives them a somewhat smaller bump, then I think we can assume that the two letters have given them between 10-20% more initial responses... which may be pretty close to as many as they could reasonably hope for, no matter how many extra letters they sent.

    My idea is this: include a free Wendy's frosty coupon with each census. Tell people "when you return the census, you get a free Frosty!" This will work, I guarantee it.

  4. Well, I think that using logical statements and facts to back up a cogent argument is very contrary to the spirit of the internet, but there's nothing I can do to stop you.

    I'm totally on board with the Frosty idea, too.

  5. I am somewhat confused by what you are railing against. While I like to complain about the crappy job government is doing as much as anyone, why aren't we railing about this: why are we (plain ole Americans) such f$&&ing retards that we can't follow simple instructions like, "fill out and return this form."

    Or did you guys just skip past that obvious point?