U.S. CENSUS TRACKS MAIL, RAISING FEARS AMONG SOME

March 22, 2010

U.S. Census Bureau officials are counting on an advanced postal tracking system to speed up responses and save the government millions of dollars in follow-up letters and visits by census takers.  But some privacy advocates and lawmakers are troubled by the tracking system, which they say oversteps privacy bounds, says the Wall Street Journal.

The 2010 Census forms arrive this week at 120 million addresses across the country:

  • Each piece of Census mail comes with a unique barcode that lets the U.S. Postal Service and the bureau track individual letters as they travel to and from the bureau.
  • Each time a letter zips through sorting equipment -- typically five times between the initial mailing and delivery -- it generates data that are fed into a computer system that lets the bureau monitor its progress.
  • The Census Bureau can check which letters have been delivered, residents who have changed their addresses, homes and apartments that are unoccupied and who has returned their Census form, all in real time.

Also:

  • The system cuts postage because it pinpoints residences that are vacant and takes them off the list for future mailings.
  • It lowers follow-up costs by ferreting out homes where residents haven't responded; those homes get replacement forms, and the Census Bureau has found that this greatly improve response rates.
  • In the past, the bureau sent replacement forms only if requested by a resident.
  • Ten years ago, the Census Bureau couldn't quickly determine which households didn't fill out the forms, so it had to send a census taker to all the residences that didn't reply.

The close monitoring of the mail is giving privacy advocates and others pause.  "I would certainly agree it's more invasive of people's privacy," said Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who has opposed the Census because it goes beyond a simple headcount, asking residents 10 questions, including names, ages, race and sex.

"It's the environment we live in; the government knows every single thing.  It just means there is more pressure, and more likelihood, that you are going to be fined by the government."  Rep. Paul was the sole "no" vote on a House resolution this month to encourage participation in the 2010 Census.

Source: Jean Spencer, "U.S. Census Tracks Mail, Raising Fears Among Some," Wall Street Journal, March 19, 2010.

 

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