For the past month, the US Census has been sending out forms to over 130 million households across the country in order to count the number of people in America.

Here at USM, census officials are reaching out to students, traditionally a difficult population to count.

Gail Driscoll, a partnership specialist with the Portland Census Office, led the USM efforts and met with students last Monday. “The census is important because it’s used to allocate 400 billion federal dollars and decides the Electoral College,” explained Driscoll.

Driscoll worked beside a large blue tent near Payson Smith covering a photo display of American people and a video set up by the 2010 Census. Census workers, some of them students themselves, set up information tables all over campus and gave out free hats, t-shirts, and 1 gigabyte USB pen-drives designed to look like robots. Conducting a head-count style census every 10 years is required by the Constitution and anyone receiving a survey is required by law to respond, but there is no penalty for non-responders.

Nearby, in the Wishcamper building, Prashant Mittal, a statistics instructor for the USM Business School discussed improvements to the 2010 Census and suggestions for future censuses. He works as a contractor for the Maine Center for Disease Control designing statistical surveys similar to the census.

“As a statistician who believes in sampling, I used to view it as a huge waste of resources, but I think that the 2010 census has improved a lot of things,” said Mittal. He explained the 2000 census was over 25 pages long and the 2010 census has been simplified to just 10 questions on 2 pages, which should dramatically improve the response rate. The last census only got a 26 percent response rate by mail from the 130 million surveys it sent out, and even after knocking on doors the census makes statistical estimates to cover the remaining non-responding population.

Mittal thinks the 2010 census will get a much better response rate than in past years.

A Maine attorney who worked for the 1980 census, but wished to remain anonymous, said the 2010 census is a dramatic improvement since 30 years ago. “In 1980 it was a joke, we were going door to door to the tourist cabins in Old Orchard Beach that are empty except in July and August,” said the attorney.

Students are part of what the census calls a “hard to enumerate population,” and Driscoll explained that because students are often hard to count they have been given a high priority in the 2010 census. “We’re doing a lot more outreach than in the past,” Driscoll said.  Next to her table stood a laptop and webcam on a small stand where students could give a short interview as to why they were filling out the census, which would be posted online. Driscoll urged people to return their census forms in the mail before April 19 because each census house visit costs taxpayers an average of $75 between training staff, fuel, and labor. The free giveaway items are meant to help the Census improve its response rate and avoid paying the $75 per visit that non-responders mean for the census.

“They did an immense amount of advertising this year,” said Mittal who pointed to Superbowl commercials, and even ads in Hindi targeted at the Indian community. Mittal, an Indian, said that while he appreciated the ethnic advertising efforts, he felt the Hindi ads were somewhat deceptive. “They promised ‘my community’ $400 billion if we filled out the census, but I went to their website, saw the exact same line and realized that by ‘my community’ they were really just referring to all Americans,” said Mittal. The census has a broad ethnic advertising campaign and is running TV commercials in over 40 different languages.

When asked how he would improve the 2010 census design, Mittal said that he would have changed the racial question that asks if someone is “African American, Black or Negro” to leave out “Negro” because although the census argues that some older African Americans prefer this word, some may find the term offensive.

Mittal complimented the census for sending advance letters to census households because this is a proven way to increase response rates by 6-8 percent, saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. However, Mittal would also mail reminder letters with a unique URL link to non-responders and then follow those with phone calls in order to improve response rates and avoid the expensive house visits. Mittal said the census is sending people on ATVs to the homes of non-responders in Northern Maine and thinks this is a waste of money.


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