Cost of 2010 census attracting scrutiny

Benjamin Franklin, father of the first U.S. census — which cost $44,000 in 1790 — famously said that "a penny saved is a penny earned."

Were he alive today, Franklin might have a less flattering saying for the bureaucrats running the 2010 census, which is costing taxpayers $15 billion — and rising.

That's $48 per person counted, compared with $16 in 2000 (about $20 adjusted for inflation) and about a penny in 1790 (or 24 cents after 220 years of inflation).

In March 2008, federal auditors designated this year's census a "high-risk area" of federal spending. Among the reasons: weak management of Census Bureau purchases, including computers and software, and inaccurate cost estimates.

Adding to that expense, the Kansas City Star found, are 28 million Census mailings that bureau officials and the U.S. Postal Service have agreed will simply be thrown away.

That's right. Of the 425 million pieces of mail that began going out last month, up to 28 million, or about 7 percent, will end up in the nation's recycling bins.

"That is waste at its worst, and we could have avoided it," said U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who sleeps on a cot in his office to save money.

Census spokesman Stan Rolark agreed that as many as 28 million letters could be tossed but said the mailings were needed to ensure that the census reached as many respondents as possible. He had no estimate of the cost.

'A known inefficiency'

Census officials insist the key to a successful count is a good response. That is why they are sending out six separate mailings, including advance notices, multiple questionnaires and follow-up reminders to more than 130 million households.

But millions of those mailings will go to addresses that the U.S. Postal Service lists in its files as undeliverable. They are part of a category called UAAs (Undeliverable As Addressed).

As a result, the Postal Service, which lost $3.8 billion last year, will distribute the mailings to post offices for attempted delivery, even though they are going to vacant houses or to addresses that are otherwise undeliverable.

In the end, in Postal Service parlance, they will be "wasted."

Only notices and reminder cards will be trashed, however, said Postal Service spokesman Richard Watkins. Questionnaires will be returned to the Census Bureau.

While the arrangement has reportedly rankled some high-level postal officials, no one is complaining publicly.

Watkins said it was all part of a joint agreement that "reduces expensive UAA processing overhead" because the Postal Service will dump the undeliverable mail instead of returning it to the Census Bureau.

Top Census officials are concerned that vacant houses, especially in tough economic times, might not really be vacant. People may be "squatting" in them. Others may be doubling up with relatives or huddling in basements, attics and even in cars, boats or storage sheds.

"The vacancy rate through foreclosures and other reasons... hurts us," Census Bureau Director Robert Groves said in a media briefing recently. "It means that we're going to mail out a lot of forms to units where no one lives."

Census officials also said they needed to keep a record of reportedly vacant addresses so they could double-check later for recent move-ins.

"We really don't know they're vacant (the houses) at the time of the mailing," said Rolark, the spokesman.

A federal auditor, who spoke anonymously, said: "This may seem obviously wasteful to some... but this is a known inefficiency that the bureau has to accept to make sure a house truly is vacant."

Publicly, postal officials agree with the theory of sending mail to known vacant addresses. They say they must consider the possibility that a residence may be vacant one day and occupied the next.

Privately, however, some are concerned about the "enormous wastefulness" of the process.

Chaffetz and others in Congress have suggested that instead of using $1 billion in stimulus money to help hire 700,000 new census takers this year, the Census Bureau could have relied, at least in part, on the 785,000 workers at the Postal Service, who already are familiar with the nation's neighborhoods.

Governments appeal

The Census Bureau also has sometimes failed to include addresses that cities and townships insist do exist and are occupied.

Under a program called LUCA (Local Update of Census Addresses) local governments review the Census Bureau's master address file and argue that it should include addresses they say are missing.

In Cincinnati, the bureau removed thousands of addresses from its files that the city considered valid.

Cities try to pump up their numbers to get more federal dollars.

Kansas City has appealed more than 6,600 addresses left off the master file that could be added before the census is over.

Nationwide, 2,500 local governments have appealed 1.7 million addresses that are not part of the master file. In 2000, only 340,000 addresses were in dispute.

Philip Fulton, who runs the independent LUCA program, said more governments were appealing now than in the past and had become better at it.

Ninety percent of people surveyed in a recent Pew Research Center poll called the census important for the country and agreed that it was valuable for redistributing U.S. House seats and billions of dollars in federal aid.

But the same survey found that 1 in 5 people may refuse to fill out the forms because of a lack of interest or distrust in government.

The federal government is trying harder every 10 years to reach these people through a process that federal auditors have suggested may no longer be "financially sustainable."

The cost of conducting the census has, on average, at least doubled every 10 years — and has tripled in the past decade — and is expected to exceed $30 billion in 2020.