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The U.S. Makes-No-Census Bureau

December 3, 2008

Last week, a few days before Thanksgiving, I got a letter at work from the U.S. Census Bureau. It was a notification that I would soon be receiving an American Community Survey questionnaire regarding the residents in my building (there is a house attached to the church where I work). I promptly recycled the notice–I’d deal with the survey when it actually arrived, right?

This past Monday, I received another notice in the mail informing me that as a follow-up to the previous message, I would soon be receiving a survey.
On Tuesday, I received the actual survey. It’s currently sitting on my desk, because it’s really long.
Today, guess what I received? A reminder that says, “A few days ago, you should have received an American Community Survey questionnaire. If you have already mailed it back….”
Here’s what I have to say: A lot of people moan and groan about our government. Everyone has a complaint about the government. I truly don’t understand the innerworkings of the government well enough to legitimately complain. But I will say that this business of sending three different notices in addition to the actual survey is a massive waste of paper. Not to mention tax money. Maybe one notice–at most–could be justified. But three? To some extent, I think you have to run this country like a business, or you end up with no fiscal responsibility and an economy like the one we have today. And this is just bad business.
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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Josh permalink
    December 4, 2008 9:33 am

    This reminds me of last year when the Federal Government sent everyone letters to say “Your $600 tax rebate check is in the mail.” Come on Government! JUST PUT THE CHECK IN THE LETTER! Don’t send me two seperate things. That one letter alone cost something like $120 Million.

  2. Bob permalink
    December 4, 2008 7:16 pm

    The question to ask is, is the greater survey response rate they get by sending three reminder mailings rather than one worth the cost of the two additional mailings. Why is that, you ask? In order to maximize the accuracy of the survey (and this is a pretty big and important one as surveys go — a lot of researchers use it), the government needs to get as high a response rate as possible. Why? In the end, they have to estimate the characteristics of those who never completed the survey to correct for the non-response bias (those who didn’t complete the survey are systematically different than those who did), and that degrades the quality of the results.

    In fact, you could try holding onto the survey for a long time to see what happens. It wouldn’t surprise me if you got a follow-up phone call or even a visit if you insisted on dragging your feet. They want your data! (Or the CSC’s or whomever’s it was addressed to)

    Throw us social scientists a bone, eh?

  3. Jamey Stegmaier permalink
    December 4, 2008 9:44 pm

    Josh, you have an excellent point. And Bob, you have a good point, but I don’t think it works here. You’re saying that the return on investment in additional mailing is greater than if you only had one reminder mailing because you’ll get a greater response. I contend that the additional mailings do not contribute to a greater response. If there were some sort of incentive to respond, yes, that would help, and maybe they could only send that incentive to people like me who don’t reply right away (therefore cutting costs). But getting multiple mailings just annoyed me and made me feel like I was part of the waste instead of encouraging me to actually fill out the survey.

    Here’s the question, social scientist: How would you have done it?

  4. Bob permalink
    December 5, 2008 7:08 am

    Jamey, you’re probably not in the target population for those second and third mailings. It’s probably most helpful for those who are extremely busy, unaware, unorganized, or skeptical (or a combination of the above). Here’s where I’d need more marketing/psychology experience to tell whether the extra mailings are effective. Or I could just BS, but I’m just waking up and it’s not in me at the moment!

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