Thursday, April 01, 2010

Make it a Census Competition

So today is census day. The 2010 census is supposed to take a snapshot of the total U.S. population, and who is living where, on this day. The form actually asks each household to enter in the names of people who, as of April 1, are living there "most of the time."

One of my favorite books is Freakonomics, which applies economic analysis to human nature. One chapter talks about human motivation and concludes that peer pressure---more specifically, the fear of embarrassment---is the most effective motivation. Without giving the chapter away, suffice it to say that guilt is a far better way to encourage parents to pick up their children on time at daycare versus fining those that are tardy. (Yes that was the actual way the book's authors studied the issue of motivation.)

For that reason, I applaud the U.S. Census for setting up a way to track, in real time, what towns, counties and states are winning the census race. As of writing this blog post, a little more than half of U.S. households have mailed back their census forms (I sent mine back over a week ago). A neat website set up by the census lets you see how various parts of the country are faring in terms of their response rates.

Map of Downtown Boston and Environs
Taken from
April 1, 2010

In case you can't see it clearly, the map above is of downtown Boston, and the shades of blue and green indicate the range that each shaded area falls into based on how many households have returned their census forms. The green shades represent areas where the response is better than 50 percent, and the blue represents areas where the response is below 50 percent (As response gets better, the shades will turn yellow and orange, per the key at the top). It's kind of neat. In the spirit of the Freakonomics chapter, I might encourage my neighbors to mail their forms back, so we can beat Cambridge!


I don't understand why anyone would tell people not to mail back their census forms. Some anti-government groups are urging citizens to refrain from participating in the census; they say the government is out to get too much info on all of us.

An editorial I read in today's New York Times notes how Michelle Bachmann, a Republican Congresswoman from Minnesota, is part of the crowd telling people to "Throw it out" instead of "Mail it back." As the New York Times points out, if Bachmann succeeds, the only thing her disciples will gain is less federal funding and a scaling down of other benefits, which are allotted based on the census results. Heck, if she's really successful, Minnesota could stand to lose one of its allotted congressional seats. Perhaps Representative Bachmann would then get redistricted out of Congress?


Editor's Note: Editorial mentioned above is "The Real Census," The New York Times, April 1, 2010; page A20.

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