Thursday, March 18, 2010

Census hitches million-dollar ride on NASCAR -- March 18, 2010 column


Every 10 years since 1790, the federal government has counted Americans, and every 10 years some of us wail that the census is a new and nefarious plot to invade our privacy.

And so, every 10 years the government seeks creative ways to sell us on filling out a census form.

The 2010 Census is the most accommodating and, at $14.7 billion over 10 years, the most expensive ever. Its questionnaire is one of the shortest in history.

Now, after its TV ads during the Super Bowl and the Olympics, the census hopes to ride the popularity of NASCAR. This Sunday, Greg Biffle will drive the 2010 Census-sponsored No. 16 Ford Fusion at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee. Next stop: the Martinsville (Va.) Speedway March 28.

The $1.2 million NASCAR sponsorship is part of a $300 million communications campaign aimed at prodding people to answer 10 inoffensive questions, a task that takes about 10 minutes, and then mail in the questionnaire.

Of the $300 million budget for communications, $140.4 million will go to paid media advertising, up from $110 million 10 years ago. This is stunningly costly outreach at a time of soaring federal budget deficits.

For some perspective, however, consider that Microsoft spent $300 million on a 2008 ad campaign to counter Apple’s “I’m a Mac” ads. And $140.4 million is how much the tobacco industry spends marketing in West Virginia in one year, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Still, can spending so much on census ads possibly be worth it? We won’t know until all the data are in, but it appears that people are getting the message.

In 2000, the census participation rate was about 72 percent, an increase from the mid-60 range.

Today, almost everybody knows about the census, almost nine in 10 people say the census is very or somewhat important to the country and that they plan to send in the form, according to a survey the Pew Research Center released Tuesday.

The proportion of people saying they’ll definitely participate has increased 12 points since January, Pew reported. That’s good news because the Census Bureau says each 1 percent rise in household participation saves $85 million.

Those who want to resist the census should remember that it's going to count you -- or keep spending money trying. After mailing each household an announcement letter, a census form and a reminder postcard, the census eventually will send enumerators to the homes of non-respondents. This personal service cost about $57 per visit in 2000 and could cost $72 per visit in 2010.

No electronic census reporting is yet available because the Census Bureau hasn’t worked out the technology, which is odd. We file taxes and bank electronically, and people eagerly spill their innermost secrets online.

Even in our tell-all society, though, when the government asks once a decade who lives in the house, it goes against the grain. Among those who threaten to boycott the 2010 Census are tea party activists, Libertarians, Hispanic groups and even a few outliers in Congress. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., declared last year she wouldn’t fill out a form, but she changed her mind. Bachmann now supports a House resolution urging participation.

Some Hispanic groups fear that undocumented residents could be identified, but the census can’t ask – there’s no question about immigration status -- and can’t tell. Under federal law, the census cannot share any information – not names, addresses or GPS coordinates, phone numbers, anything – with anyone. This includes the FBI, CIA, IRS and law enforcement. Census employees take an oath for life to protect privacy.

The main function of the census is to reapportion members of the House of Representatives. It also determines how to allocate $400 billion in federal funds annually. Ads stress sending in the forms as a way of bringing back money for hospitals, schools, bridges and tunnels and other goodies.

Self-interest isn’t the only motivator, of course. Eight in 10 people told Pew participating in the census was a civic responsibility, although the sentiment was far stronger among older people. The decennial census is required by the Constitution.

My guess is most people would participate without Greg Biffle and his No. 16 Ford Fusion. I hope NASCAR gets others on track.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. A fascinating, fact filled, complete overview of this year's census. Do we need to spend that much money to get the information we need to allocate the HR seats, and distribute federal funds? Still, $10 billion doesn't seem like a lot, given the way Congress spends to stimulate the economy and satisfy its friends. Marsha Mercer does a real fine job on this topic. Bravo.