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Isn't there a smarter way to collect census data?

Editor’s note: Food Lion co-founder Ralph W. Ketner recently submitted this letter to Rep. Howard Coble and other members of the N.C. Congressional Delegation regarding ways to improve participation in the upcoming census.
Our Rotary program this week dealt with the 2010 census. The speaker gave details regarding the 10 questions on the census form, etc. She also mentioned that, based upon past performance, only 64 percent of the forms mailed to residents would be returned and that as a result, 1.4 million people would be hired to follow up on the 36 percent who did not complete and return the forms. As I see it, for the government to go into the census undertaking projecting only 64 percent voluntary participation is absolutely idiotic. Obviously, some thought should be given immediately to a program that would result in the neighborhood of 90 percent volunteer participation.
I offer two suggestions. The No. 1 choice would be to offer a “carrot,” so to speak, which would be a chance for those completing and returning the forms to win some monetary prize, such as a $1 million prize for each state or so much for each of the 3,000-odd counties in the United States. The cost of this would be much less than the cost of hiring people to follow up on forms not returned. The No. 2 choice would be not to offer a “carrot” but to charge a penalty for those not returning the form. Perhaps a charge of $50 or $100 would get their attention. If by using a “carrot” the volunteer participation would increase from 64 percent to 90 percent, this would mean that instead of having to hire 1.4 million people to follow up, you would need only to employ 388,000. The difference in cost between the two figures obviously would be a much greater savings than the rewards offered. If a decision was made to charge a penalty, the follow-up census workers could share 50-50 in the penalty of $100, if that was the charge, thus reducing the costs further.
I urge you to have someone in the government census office to give serious consideration to the above, as it is unbelievable that 435 representatives and 100 senators woud permit the beginning of the 2010 census undertaking projecting only 64 percent participation. I have found in business that if you project failure, you get failure. Too often that has been the action taken by our Congress.
I sincerely hope that someone on your staff will give thought to the above.

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