BOX 3-1 Mail Response and Return Rates

Definitions and Uses

The mail response rate is defined as the number of households returning a questionnaire by mail divided by the total number of questionnaires sent out in mailback areas. Achieving a high mail response rate is important for the cost and efficiency of the census because every returned questionnaire is one less household for an enumerator to follow up in the field.

The mail return rate is defined as the number of households returning a questionnaire by mail divided by the number of occupied households that were sent questionnaires in the mailback areas. This rate is an indicator of public cooperation. Achieving a high mail return rate (at least to the level of 1990) is important because of evidence from 1990 that mail returns are more complete than enumerator-obtained returns.

In 2000, because of the alternative modes by which households could fill out their forms, the numerator of both “mail” responses and “mail” returns included responses submitted on the Internet, over the telephone, and on “Be Counted” forms. The denominator of the mail response rate included all addresses on the April 1, 2000, version of the MAF, covering both mailout/mail back and update/leave areas. The denominator of the mail return rate excluded addresses on the MAF that field follow-up determined were vacant, nonresidential, or nonexistent.

Rates, 1970–2000 Censuses

 

Census

 

1970

1980

1990

2000

Mail response rate

78%

75%

65%

66%

Mail return rate

87%

81%

74%

70–72%a

 

Source for 1970–1990 rates: National Research Council (1995:Table 3.1, App. A). Mail response and return rates are not strictly comparable across censuses because of differences in procedures used to compile the address list, percentage of the population included in the mailback universe (about 60% in 1970 and 95% or more in 1980–2000), and time allowed for mailback.

Differences in Mail Return Rates: Short and Long Forms

Return rates of long forms are typically below the return rates of short forms. This difference widened substantially in 2000.

 

Census

 

1970

1980

1990

2000a

Short-form rate:

87.8%

81.6%

74.9%

72%

Long-form rate:

85.5%

80.1%

70.4%

58%

aOverall preliminary mail return rates have been cited as 72 percent and 70 percent; if 70 percent is correct, then 72 percent and 58 percent are approximately correct for the short-form and long-form rates. Rates may change when the Census Bureau completes its evaluation of mail response.



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