Don’t Count on an Efficient Census Bureau | Citizens Against Government Waste

Don’t Count on an Efficient Census Bureau

The WasteWatcher

The Census and the Super Bowl are American traditions whose paths had never crossed until February 7.  That is when the Census Bureau spent $2.5 million for an ad during the big game to urge people to fill out and send in their questionnaires.  This expenditure was just the latest in a number of high profile missteps by the agency.

Article 1, Section 2 of the United States Constitution states that “[An] Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”  Since the first Congress met in 1789 and the first Census was held in 1790, the Census has been conducted every 10 years thereafter.

Because the population count is used as the basis for redistricting seats in the House of Representatives and to distribute hundreds of billions of dollars in federal aid, many states are pushing for all-out government outreach efforts since there is little margin for error, particularly for minorities and the poor, who tend to be undercounted. At the same time, the national head count will be the most expensive ever, making it a particularly visible sign of rising government spending.

The Super Bowl has transcended being merely the championship game for the National Football League into a social event that people across the country and even overseas look forward to every year.  In addition to the game, which is often one-sided and anticlimactic, there is always great anticipation surrounding the advertisements.  In the past, many have been groundbreaking, but for the most part the competition is to produce the funniest ad.

The Census Bureau ad was not even considered in that category.  It featured a mockumentary (fake documentary) of a production company trying to get a “snapshot” of the country starring Hollywood stars such as Ed Begley, Jr.  The $2.5 million “Snapshot of America” ad was rated as one of the three worst ads, and the ongoing media campaign continues to confuse TV viewers and outrage taxpayers.  The Super Bowl ad is part of a $133 million advertising campaign to urge people to send back their questionnaires, which will be mailed out in mid-March.

The alarming fact is that the ad isn’t even the Census Bureau’s biggest problem.

On March 5, 2008, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) designated the 2010 Census as a high-risk program, at risk for significant waste, fraud, and abuse.  Unfortunately for taxpayers, the GAO has been proven correct.

A February 16, 2010 Commerce Department Inspector General (IG) audit concluded that the Bureau’s effort in counting Americans is plagued with software and information technology glitches and abusive spending practices.  As part of the technology “improvements,” the Bureau spent $1 billion to develop a handheld device to be used by Census workers as they go door-to-door to cull data from households which fail to return their paper questionnaires (expected to be about one-third of the 130 million households receiving the forms next month by mail).  The handheld computer failed spectacularly, the program was halted, and the aborted process delayed the development of a back-up paper-processing system.  The audit also revealed that a key software component of that paper-processing system is also riddled with deficiencies.

The IG also reviewed the performance of the 140,000 temporary census workers who went block by block in the fall of 2009 to update the Bureau’s maps and found that costs had ballooned by $88 million, or 25 percent, over the original estimate of $356 million.

The bureau spent $3 million on more than 10,000 census workers who pocketed $300 each to show up for training sessions, but were either fired or quit before they performed any work.  Another 5,000 workers worked for a day or less but were still paid $300.

Probably the most ridiculous expenditure was reported by The Seattle Times on February 17, 2010, which noted that “Tsue Chong Co., a fortune-cookie factory in Seattle’s Chinatown International District, is inserting five different census messages into 2 million cookies being shipped to restaurants and groceries across Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.  Like the usual predictions of wealth, fame and long life you’ll find on one side, the census missives on the opposite side are a bit ... well ... banal. ‘Put down your chopsticks and get involved in Census 2010,’ reads one message. ‘Real Fortune is being heard,’ reads another.”

It is the taxpayers’ good fortune that the Census only occurs every 10 years.

-- David E. Williams

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