Low Census Response Rate Will Cost Tax Dollars

"We can't move forward until you mail it back" has been the oft-repeated mantra of the U.S. Census as it collects completed forms. Today is the first deadline to mail back those census questionnaires and, as of earlier this week, only 68 percent of households had obliged. In 2000 it was 72 percent by this time in the process. Big deal, you say? It actually is. That translates to a little more than 5 million households unaccounted for, and every percentage point closer to 100 saves $85 million of taxpayer money in canvassing efforts this month and next to fill in the gap.

On their face, the general statistics may sound odd: if the government already knows how many people haven't mailed back their forms, can't it just count them? Yes and no. Raw numbers are helpful, but the real purpose of the tally is to identify where people live in order to carve up new congressional districts. Demographics such as race and age allow policymakers to see how the country is changing. "Folks that don't get counted—you're, in a sense, costing your community political representation," says Tom Mesenbourg, associate director of the census.

In addition to the apathetic, the far right has been a headache for Mesenbourg and Census Bureau director Robert Groves. Rep. Michele Bachmann initially said she would not fill out the entire form, but has since flip-flopped on the issue. Perhaps that's because, as Stephen Colbert astutely pointed out an inaccurate count could result in one less congressional seat, namely Bachmann's. Fox News host Glenn Beck, among others, has charged that the Obama administration will try to use the information gathered through the census for nefarious purposes, and Erick Erickson, of CNN and the conservative blog RedState, recently said that if a census taker came to his house he would "pull out my wife’s shotgun and see how that little ACS twerp likes being scared at the door."

Of the forms that have come in, participation rates are highest in the Midwest, a quirky trend that, as NEWSWEEK has noted, demonstrates that states such as Wisconsin and Michigan may simply be more civic-minded than the rest of us. Some minority groups, especially Latinos and Arab-Americans, have launched campaigns to urge participation. But other constituencies, including undocumented immigrants, remain wary that giving the government personal information could come back to bite them. (Census officials note that individual information, and its source, is kept confidential by law.)

On Wednesday Groves visited central Texas, where, at 58 percent, participation lags far behind the national average. If you don't mail your form back, Groves reminds the crowds he talks to, he'll have to send out legions of census takers on foot (and, in some cases, horseback or snowshoe) to knock on your door and actually talk to you. Who wants that? Not people who want to avoid the census, and not the taxpayers either.