Steve, Cathy, and Nicholas -- Steve's letter about the U.S. Census (created 2010-03-23, updated 2010-04-17)

A letter written by Ralph Anderson in the Kansas City Star about wasteful spending in the U.S. Census provoked me to write a response. I have an uneven track record of getting my letters published, but I'm hopeful about this one. You can read Mr. Anderson's letter at

and my response is below:

Ralph Anderson characterizes the U.S. Census reminder letters as "a waste of millions of dollars" (Letters, March 20, 2010). Actually, reminder letters save money. If you don't return your census form, the Census Bureau is obligated to attempt a personal interview, a costly process that is easily a hundred times more expensive than a reminder letter. Even a one percent reduction in non-response would make a reminder letter cost effective.

Reminder letters are common in large scale business surveys. Our government is simply adopting practices that have been tested and proven in the private sector.

The real waste is caused by conservative pundits who encourage you to skip or to respond incompletely to the census. When you fill out and return the census form on time, you save the government money. You also help to insure a fair and equitable allocation of resources for hospitals, schools, and public work projects.

Update: the letter did not get published, which I can understand with space limitations and all, but then a second letter critical of the U.S. Census and then a third appeared. So I wrote to the reader's advocate, Derek Donovan, and complained.

You're the person who has to listen to reader complaints about unfair coverage. I appreciate your dedication to this job and I appreciate how the Kansas City Star devotes resources for this job.

I am concerned about the numerous letters to the editor criticizing the U.S. Census Bureau for sending out reminder letters. This practice is not wasteful, as at least three letters to the editor have claimed, but actually cost effective. Every increase of 1% in the response rate saves the government $85 million dollars because that avoids the expensive and inefficient alternative of sending a census worker to your door. Reminder letters are dirt cheap by comparison. They aren't intended for the majority of conscientious citizens, but for the minority who do not read their mail carefully but who routinely throw away much of their mail unread.

I submitted a letter explaining this about a week ago, which did not get published. I understand that there are space limits and priorities. But why do you keep publishing letters that make the same (incorrect) claim that reminder letters are wasteful?

If my letter was not well written, surely there would be others submitted which make the same point. Or I'm sure you could find someone who works with the Census Bureau who could write an invited column for "As I see it".

Did I miss something? Has there been a letter or editorial supportive of the Census that I just overlooked? If not, this is a serious imbalance of opinions.

Thanks for listening. I'd appreciate a reply if you have time at either of the email addresses above or on the phone (xxx-xxx-xxxx)

That did the trick. I got published a couple of days later. I made a few minor changes, but got pretty much the whole thing published.


By the way, I've had another email exchange with Mr. Donovan. He's a very nice person and he takes his job very seriously.

What now?

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Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. This page was written by Steve Simon and was last modified on 2010-04-26.