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Census Overkill? Why Census Bureau Sends Letters Saying Census Form is Coming

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke appeared on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" Thursday night, and he was asked the question on the minds of many Americans: Why does the census bureau send letters telling people that they are going to be receiving their census form in the mail?

Locke came prepared. "Past research has shown that if we send this advanced mailing, we can actually increase the response rate -- the percentage of households sending back the census form -- by six percent to twelve percent," he told Stewart.

Locke explained that if people don't mail back the form by the first of May, the census bureau has to send employees to a person's residence to try to get the necessary information. If there is no one home, the census taker has to return multiple times.

"It would cost us a lot of money, and for every one percent improved mail-back response, we save the taxpayers $85 million," he said, prompting applause. (Quipped Stewart to the audience: "You don't get to keep that.")

"Despite all the publicity, the TV ads, the radio commercials and newspaper and magazine advertisement, still a lot of people in the country don't know about the census," Locke said. "Or if they do know about the census, they don't know exactly when the census form is arriving."

The census determines, among other things, how many representatives each state will have in Congress, as well as representation in state legislatures.

Other notable comments by Locke (here's part one of the interview; part two is embedded above):

  • Everything in the census for is confidential and "will not be shared with local, state or other federal law enforcement agencies";
  • The first census was in 1790, and Thomas Jefferson was the head of the first census bureau;
  • The ten questions in this year's census are "very close" to what was asked in the first census, when there were six questions. Two questions that have since been eliminated: Are you the head of the household, and how many slaves do you have.

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