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The Census as Civic Enterprise

Yesterday morning, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Census Bureau Director Bob Groves stepped up to press conference mikes to announce that the Census Bureau is giving back $1.6 billion of its $7.6 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2010. Half of this 22 percent savings comes from unused contingency funds, set aside in case of natural disaster or operational breakdown. The other half is due to a higher-than-anticipated rate of households participating in the census and a census workforce that was more efficient than expected.

Given the large budget deficit, a ten-figure give-back certainly is welcome. Even more striking, though, is the civic intent reflected in these savings. In this time of constant partisan warfare, millions of households and hundreds of thousands of census workers believed in the value of the census and so took steps--whether filling out the form or knocking on doors--to add their small contribution to a federally-sponsored collective effort far larger than themselves, for the good of the nation, their states, and their communities.

This country’s ability to function would be severely hampered without an accurate decennial census. Our democracy relies on it to apportion the House of Representatives and redraw legislative districts. Our governments need it to figure out where to put roads, schools, health centers, and police and how to distribute hundreds of billion dollars a year in federal and state assistance. Our businesses depend on census-related numbers to determine where to operate, what goods and services to offer, and how much to spend on jobs and equipment.

The household participation rate in the mail-back part of the census was 72 percent, well higher than expected. At some level, and despite the noise in the media about government intrusiveness, people understood the value of filling out the form. Perhaps they wanted to bring federal dollars to their communities (as described in Brookings’ Counting for Dollars) and be sure they were represented in Congress. Perhaps they embraced the opportunity as an anonymous way to create nationwide community in these stress-filled times. Perhaps they felt like they were touching history, taking part in an exercise that can be traced back to the first years of the nation. 

Whatever the reason, each percentage point in the participation rate provided a budget savings of $85 million and that added up.

Then there were the efforts of the citizen army of hundreds of thousands of temporary Census Bureau workers who spread out around the nation to knock on the doors of those who hadn’t filled out the forms. The Great Recession provided the Census Bureau with access to a large pool of talent needing a job—many were motivated to do good work because they believed in the civic value of the census. One result was greater efficiency compared to past experience in the non-response follow-up operation.

The conduct of the decennial census is a massive, highly complex technical enterprise that yields a great big bunch of numbers—it’s hard to get any more left-brain than the census. But, ultimately, the success of this 2010 Census depends on the heart. Of millions of households, of hundreds of thousands of census workers, of the thousands of permanent census employees, and the new team of managers determined to guide the census out of a thicket of inherited problems.

So the nation gets savings, $1.6 billion. And there’s another dividend—a demonstration that Washington can do good things and that enormous civic achievements are possible when heads and hearts work together.