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Change and the 2020 Census: Not Whether But How
to be returned by mail or for direct interviewing—for people across much of the land area of the nation.
Although the methodological basics of the U.S. census have remained the same over those 40 years, the cost of the census has decidedly not. Since 1970, the per-housing-unit cost of the census increased by at least 30 percent from decade to decade (and typically more); even with the Census Bureau’s announcement that the 2010 census will return $1.6 billion to the treasury, the per-housing-unit cost of the 2010 census is likely to exceed $100, relative to the comparable 1970 figure of $17 per unit (National Research Council, 2010:Table 2-2).2 To be sure, a contributor to the cost increases has been the addition of specialized operations to increase the coverage and accuracy of the count—to the extent that the 2000 census largely curbed historical trends of undercounting some demographic groups and, indeed, may have overcounted some (National Research Council, 2010:29–30). That said, the cost of American census-taking has reached the point of being unsustainable in an era when unnecessary government spending is coming under increased scrutiny; the Census Bureau is certain to face pressure to do far better than the projections of straight-line increases in costs that have accompanied earlier censuses.
At this writing, the tremendously complex and high-stakes civic exercise that is the 2010 census will still be very much in operation. Even with the release of state-level population counts by the statutory deadline of December 31, 2010 (“within 9 months after the census date;” 13 USC §141[b]),3 work will continue toward the release of the detailed, census-block–level data for purposes of legislative districting by the end of March 2011 (13 USC §141[c]). Indeed, even some field interviewing work for the Census Coverage Measurement (CCM) that will provide basic quality metrics for the census continues into the early months of 2011. However, although the 2010 census continues, it is not too early to turn attention to the census in 2020. It is actually both appropriate and essential that work and research begin very early in the 2010s, if the design of the 2020 census is to be more than an incremental tweak of the 2010 plan and if the 2020 census is to be more cost-effective than its predecessors.
Figures are based on conversions to 2009 dollars in National Research Council (2010:Table 2-2). The Census Bureau announced the $1.6 billion savings (relative to budgeted totals) in August 2010; see http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/2010_census/cb10-cn70.html. Using $13.1 billion as the life-cycle cost for the 2010 census rather than $14.7 billion as in the cited table yields a per-household-cost estimate of $102.42.
The Census Bureau announced the apportionment totals 10 days early, in a December 21 press event. Earlier that day, the secretary of commerce officially transmitted the results to the president as required by law; the president, in turn, transmitted the numbers and the corresponding allocation of seats to both houses of Congress during the first day of the 112th Congress on January 5, 2011.