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You Paid For It: U.S. Census Could Be Making Some Of The Taxpayer Dollars It Spends Back, But It's Never Tried

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Tens of billions of taxpayer dollars have been used to conduct the U.S. Census – and there is a way the federal government could make some of that money back.

But as CBS 2's Lauren Victory discovered, no one's ever even tried.

Victory sat down with U.S. Census Bureau Chicago Regional Director Marilyn Sanders – who is responsible for eight states – and Nationwide Field Operations Associate Director Tim Olson.

The discussion was about all things population count – but mostly to discuss financials.

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"The total cost for conducting the 2020 Census is like about $15 billion dollars," Olson said.

How does it add up to that much?

"There's the technology," Sanders said. "For the first time, we're using iPhones."

The Census Bureau is also allowing the use of laptops, and has specially produced YouTube videos to recruit census takers who will be paid more money than ever before.

The feds are also using satellites for the first time to help confirm addresses, and they developed a virtual way to respond to the census.

All that tech adds up. Olson didn't even have an exact cost, but said it is part of the $15 billion budget.

"I believe the efficiencies that will be gained in 2020 will certainly be outweigh and compensate for those costs; those investments that we've made," Olson said.

Why not try to collect data through some other measure like income tax returns?

"There's been a lot of research in how we conduct the census," Sanders said.

Alternate data collection means are not in the cards for 2020. But here is something to consider – everyone is required by law to respond to the census, and the penalty if you do not is up to $5,000.

We asked the Census Bureau, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Commerce for a log of all the people fined for failing to submit to the 2010 U.S. Census.

Each request came back empty. One even said, "We have never exercised that right."

At least 1.5 million people were missed in the 2010 Census. If they were all find the maximum $5,000 for refusal, that would offset half of the $15 billion budget.

Enforcing penalties might also inspire faster and/or more census responses, meaning less money spent to dispatch census takers.

The Census Bureau told CBS 2 that researchers have weighed the pros and cons of fine enforcement, Their supposed conclusion is that most people will respond when they understand the way the U.S. Census benefits their communities.

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