Census Reaches New Heights in Cost, Staffing
The total operation and analysis of the 2010 Census will cost more than $14 billion by the time of its completion in 2012, making it the most expensive head count in American history, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office. The GAO assessment, released this morning as a House subcommittee with oversight of the Census Bureau met to assess the progress of preparations, once again warns that the agency is still unprepared to perform its constitutionally-mandated duties next year.
As it has done before, GAO noted that the failure of specially-designed handheld computers curtailed dress rehearsals for census operations, meaning the Bureau "missed its only opportunity to demonstrate that the full complement of census-taking activities will work in concert with one another under near-census-like conditions." Temporary Census employees will use the computers starting next month as the Bureau begins "address canvassing," or its accounting of every place of residence, but have determined that the machines are not reliable enough to use for the in-person follow-up interviews.
"We are well on our way towards a successful enumeration," acting Census director Thomas Mesenbourg told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National Archives today.
"We are very cognizant that time is of the essence. We have an extremely tight schedule and it's going to be critically important that we keep to that schedule," he said in response to questions about the Bureau's ability to finish all testing before counting begins.
The estimated price tag for next year's Census will cover what many consider the largest peacetime mobilization of government employees in history. Mesenbourg, who predicted the total cost could reach $15 billion, said 140,000 temporary Census workers will "walk almost every street in America," to check 145 million addresses. Recent feedback from more than 8,100 local governments added more than 8 million addresses to the Census list, he said. Next year more than 600,000 temporary workers will perform follow-up visits with the estimated 47 million American households that do not respond to Census questionnaires. The Bureau also will hire more than 600 staffers to reach out to local governments and community groups to encourage participation.
The economic stimulus package granted $1 billion to the Census Bureau for final preparations, money Mesenbourg said will be spent primarily to cover next year's staffing costs. President Obama's fiscal 2010 budget proposes at least $4 billion for next year's operations, far less than the $7 billion to $8 billion it requested.
Mesenbourg also assured lawmakers that the Bureau is prepared to account for Americans displaced by the ongoing home foreclosure crisis. The Census questionnaire will also ask for an accounting of anyone who might have lived in a household temporarily and staffers will make as many as six follow-up visits to non-responding households if necessary.
Today's hearings coincided with comments by commerce secretary nominee Gary Locke, who reportedly told senators yesterday that the Census Director will continue to report to the commerce secretary. Locke's assurances follow weeks of Republican concerns that the director would instead report to White House aides.
The president has yet to name a new director, but Mesenbourg said "I believe we have the talent to keep the train moving down the track" in the absence of permanent leadership.
| March 5, 2009; 12:01 PM ET
Categories: Agencies and Departments, Congress, Oversight
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