Census mailing a money saver

By Mike Benbow, Herald Columnist

I got a letter last week from the U.S. Census Bureau saying I should expect to get my census form in the mail this week.

I suspect you did, too. The agency sent out 120 million of the letters to households around the country.

“Your response is important,” it said. “Results from the 2010 Census will be used to help each community get its fair share of government funds for highways, schools, health facilities and many other programs you and your neighbors need. Without a complete, accurate census, your community may not receive its fair share.”

That’s it. That’s all it said.

My first reaction was to think that it was a form of government bailout to help the U.S. Postal Service, which has been in such dire straits recently that it’s trying to convince Congress to let it stop delivering mail on Saturdays.

A letter to tell me they’re sending me a letter. Come on.

Indeed, the letters cost the government $85 million to prepare and send. But it’s not a postal bailout. There is a method to the apparent madness, according to Leland Dart at the Everett census office.

“We’ve had a lot of questions about that letter,” Dart acknowledged late last week. “People say it’s crazy and ask us why we’re doing that. But there is a rationale behind it.”

Dart said the reason is simple. The government doesn’t want you to throw the census form in the trash. It really wants you to fill it out and send it in.

“It’s like any other direct mail response,” Dart said. “If you get a letter saying something is coming, you’re less likely to throw it away.”

If you do toss the census form, the government will have to pay someone to come ask you the questions.

“We save money for every percent increase in the response rate,” Dart said. “Census takers have to go door-to-door to talk to people who didn’t mail out the form.”

The census bureau estimates that before it sent out the letter, about 45 percent of the population had no idea the census was taking place.

It believes that the letter you just received will increase responses by at least 6 percent and maybe even as much as 12 percent.

Dart said that the bureau expects to save $85 million for each 1 percent increase in the response rate. That’s a savings of from $500 million to $1 billion, which isn’t chump change.

So it does make sense to fill the form out. At the very least, you’ll be doing your share to reduce the federal deficit, and you’ll also prevent the government from having to pay someone to track you down.

One final reminder.

Regular readers of this column know that scammers can turn virtually anything into a money-making opportunity. I haven’t seen any census scams yet, but I’m certain they’re out there.

Know that the Census Bureau does not want money from you. It does not want your credit card information or your PIN or other financial data. It doesn’t send you e-mail.

Anything that does is a scam and you should just ignore it.

Mike Benbow: 425-339-3459; benbow@heraldnet.com.