Rep. Farenthold: Public Distrust Undermines U.S. Census As Data Collection Costs Surge

By Alissa Tabirian | September 12, 2013 | 5:21pm EDT

( – The cost of conducting the decennial U.S. Census reached an all-time high of $13 billion in 2010 - a 680 percent increase per household since 1960 - and is estimated to reach $25 billion in 2020 despite emerging challenges in data collection from government-weary non-respondents, according to congressional testimony.

The cost of taking the census rose 56 percent between 2000 and 2010. “If the recent trends hold true, the 2020 census could cost the American taxpayers $25 billion or more. This is simply unacceptable,” Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.)  noted during a  House Oversight Committee hearing Wednesday.

“We also face challenges from public distrust of the government in light of recent scandals currently being investigated by the full committee,” Farenthold said.

The scandals currently plaguing Washington, including the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups, leaks of National Security Agency surveillance documents, and the Obama administration’s cover-up of last year’s terrorist attack on the American compound in Benghazi, have made “the American public more distrustful of the government and also less likely... to participate and cooperate with the government,” he continued.

“Take Lois Lerner. She’s probably costing the taxpayers money because people are fearful how their personal information revealed to the Census service might be used against them, so they’re not filling out their survey, meaning the government has to send out people to follow up with them,” Farenthold said.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that “the cost of enumerating each housing unit has escalated from around $16 in 1970 to around $98 in 2010” while “the mail response rate... has declined from 78 percent in 1970 to 63 percent in 2010.”

To address the challenges of “counting a population that is growing steadily larger, more diverse, increasingly difficult to find, and reluctant to participate in the census,” the U.S. Census Bureau is considering “operational changes” geared toward greater cost-effectiveness.

Cost-cutting options include “targeting only certain addresses for field verification... and replacing enumerator-collected data with administrative records under certain circumstances,” which would reduce operational costs by reducing household visits by the Bureau’s field staff, “its largest and most costly census field operation.”

Additionally, the Bureau “could save up to $2 billion if it uses administrative records in 2020 to reduce the need for related costly and labor-intensive door-to-door visits.”

(AP photo)

The Census Bureau is also considering employing a “‘bring your own device’ model” to allow census workers to collect data on their own mobile phones.

GAO reported that although “the Bureau has access to some federally collected data, it does not have access to all of the federally collected administrative data that could potentially help it reduce the cost of the 2020 Census.”

Although congressional representatives at the hearing repeatedly voiced their concerns over privacy and information security in light of the Bureau’s proposed initiatives to share administrative records with government agencies, John Thompson, director of the Census Bureau, responded by saying that “we keep those records confidential.”

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