WASHINGTON — Stumbling over its multibillion-dollar plans for a high-tech census, the government says it will go back to counting the nation’s 300 million people the old-fashioned way — with paper and pencil.
Help wanted: 600,000 temporary workers to do the job.
Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told Congress Thursday his department will scrap plans to use handheld computers to collect information from the millions of Americans who don’t return the census forms that come in the mail.
That’s one of a number of changes that will add as much as $3 billion to the constitutionally mandated 2010 count, pushing the overall cost to more than $14 billion.
This was to be the first truly high-tech count in the nation’s history. The Census Bureau had awarded a contract to purchase 500,000 of the computers, at a cost of more than $600 million. The contract is now projected to balloon to $1.3 billion, even though bureau will scale back its purchase to only 151,000 computers.
The devices, which look like fancy cell phones, will still be used to verify every residential street address in the country, using global positioning system software.
But workers going door-to-door will not be able to use them to collect information from the residents who didn’t return their census forms. About a third of U.S. residents are expected not to return the forms. The Census Bureau plans to hire and train nearly 600,000 temporary workers to do the canvassing.
Gutierrez blamed many of the problems on “a lack of effective communication with one of our key contractors.”
The 2010 census was already on pace to be the most expensive ever. Officials now are scrambling to add money while trying to ensure the count produces reliable population numbers — figures that will be used to apportion seats in Congress and divvy up more than $300 billion a year in federal and state funding.