Feb. 21, 2011

Success of census credited to hiring highly skilled unemployed and help in 59 languages

Accurately counting a nation of more than 300 million people is a daunting task, but the U.S. Census Bureau accomplished it, some $1.9 billion under budget, thanks in part to the recession, advertising partners and language assistance in 59 languages, said Robert M. Groves, director of the bureau, speaking in G10 Biotechnology, Feb. 18

The census was critical, said Yasamin Miller, director of Cornell's Survey Research Institute, in her introductory remarks, because it would "determine the distribution of power in the U.S. for the next 10 years." That makes Groves, she said, perhaps "the most important survey researcher in the world."

The 2010 census, Groves said, had to accommodate an increasingly diverse population by catering to many different languages. "This was a multilingual census. All censuses in our lifetimes have been multilingual, but this was multilinguality on steroids. There were six fully translated forms: English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Russian and Vietnamese. We advertised in 28 different languages, " said Groves. Guides also read the English form into 59 other languages.

He said it was also critical to increase the percentage of self-responses to lower costs. "We figured that every 1 percentage point increase of the mail return rate would save the country $85 million, and so a lot of our effort was focused on that," said Groves.

To ensure the quality of the census, since there is no perfect census, Groves said, the bureau also used demographic analysis, which is based on records of births, deaths and migration.

Even after employing hundreds of thousands of people to go door-to-door to deliver questionnaires, the U.S. Census Bureau was able to return more than $1.9 billion to taxpayers, Groves said, in part because of the excellence of the labor force.

"The unemployment rate was so high that we had people working on tasks that we had prepared for folks who have very low skills," Groves said. "We had people who had very good job experiences. ... They finished up all the operations faster than we thought, and better than we thought. So all of our productivity models were wrong, I mean seriously wrong."

Groves also credited the census success to the many voluntary agreements the bureau had with advertising partners, from local businesses to multinational corporations, that helped get the word out.

"We think we saved about $180 million just because of that. So the country really stepped up in a way that was not self-promoting, I think, and really helped the effort," said Groves, who also spoke in detail about the logistics of conducting a census, the census data itself and the difference between being a government statistician and an academic statistician.

Groves was appointed by President Barack Obama to head the U.S. Census Bureau in 2009. Before that, he directed the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan and has authored numerous scholarly books and publications.

This talk was part of the fifth annual Cornell University Survey Research Institute Speaker Series; the series is part of the institute's effort to emphasize the relevance and significance of survey research.

Farhan Nuruzzaman '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.