JOHN OXFORD: Census: Important to fill out – and to fix in the future

By John Oxford

Today, enumerators throughout the United States will begin knocking on doors to count those who have not returned their census forms or didn’t receive one. It is time-honored tradition where every 10 years we count how many people live in this great country of ours.
You may not be aware that the U.S. Constitution empowers Congress to carry out the census in “such manner as they shall by Law direct” (Article I, Section 2). The Founders of our fledgling nation had a bold and ambitious plan to empower the people over their new government. The plan was to count every person living in the newly created United States of America, and to use that count to determine representation in the Congress. All this comes directly from the census bureau.
In addition, according to the census website, the 2010 questionnaire is one of the shortest in history, and comes very close to the length and scope of inquiries asked in 1790.
Fair enough. We should support the census and give what information we feel comfortable giving to the government. After all, census information is used to decide everything from how many members of congress our state has to how electoral districts are drawn up and how certain criteria is measured for various federal funding and grants.
The issue we should have is not with the census itself, but with the sad fact that not only does it come close to the length and scope of inquiries asked in 1790 as mentioned above, it is probably not too far off from operating the same way as well.
Too often our government forgets that we are investors in it, and never is there a more poorly run business model than the census. There is not sufficient room is this column to thoroughly address the waste and misuse of taxpayer funds in the census process, but let’s hit the highlights.
The census is estimated to cost the American taxpayers $14.7 billion according to the Department of Commerce. And thus far it is $88 million over budget, and officials are saying that there may not be a way to really know how much it will cost in the end. NASA’s budget is only $17.6 billion – so if the census continues to over run its projected budget maybe it will be enough to take us all into space.
If the cost is not enough to make you sick, the process is even worse. How many mail pieces are we going to receive? A letter telling us about the census, a post card reminder, the actual census forms, follow-up letters and more?
All of this mail does not reveal the tip of the iceberg in costs. The census will hire an estimated one million people to canvass neighborhoods and city streets. Don’t fault people for taking advantage of this in an economic downturn; fault the leadership in Washington for running a sorry operation. Any jobs report this year is not credible because it has one million jobs that are prefabricated make-work “opportunities”.
In addition, we have the $340 million ad campaign. Our government bought a 30 second ad during the Super Bowl for a couple of million dollars. What a waste. Not to mention all the radio, print and other advertisements. And in all honesty, the ads were not even that good.
The business model has got to change. Here are a couple of quick and simple ideas to reform this $14.7 billion mess that I’m sure some government-basement-dwelling bureaucrat will shoot down to save their make-work “jobs.”
We should allow the crossing of government agencies in the census process to have the IRS to make an addendum to our tax forms every 10 years. The government already has most of the census information due to filing choices and things like the child tax credit. How easy would this be? You could even cross this year’s census with this year’s tax filers to figure out what percentage you’d still need to count. It just makes too much sense and cents. And stop with the “I don’t want the IRS to know” blah blah blah. You’re kidding yourself if you don’t think our government doesn’t already have this info on you in some form.
If you don’t like the IRS idea, why not have a website and use the unique thing all citizens have: our Social Security number. This would be too easy as well. Yes there would still be some counting of those that are not computer literate, homeless, etc but just about anyway you cut it, you’d have to hand count these folks anyway. But the thought is to reduce the total costs here.
Again, there is not enough space to reform the census in this column, but as a citizen, please fill out your census – we are a huge investor in this poorly run business model so we might as well fill it out to get our fair return.
Let’s hope down the road some obvious changes are made to the census business to take advantage of technologies, cross pollination opportunities of government agencies, and just plain common sense.
John Oxford is a banker in Tupelo and a community columnist. Contact him at, or Twitter:@johnoxford1.

Click video to hear audio