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Debate Over How Census Saved $1.6 Billion

Gary Locke
Gary Locke
Gary Locke

On the day when the Commerce Department announced it was $1.6 billion under-budget on the Census project, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke defended himself against criticism Tuesday that the savings weren’t admirable at all, but due to good weather and a weak labor market.

“We had floods and tornadoes,” said Locke, who previously was the governor of Washington State.

In Tuesday's USA Today, an article argued that the government saved money on the Census because there were virtually no man-made or natural disasters during the survey period.

"Federal agencies, the GAO [Government Accountability Office] and the Department of Commerce’s Inspector General called the Census systems ‘haphazard’ [based on the Census experience under George Bush in 2000]," added Locke.

Among the savings (money budgeted but not spent): $800 million for natural disasters and operational breakdowns, $650 million due to high number of mailed Census questionnaires (greater than anticipated response by citizens who filled out the forms) and $150 million for counting people living in Alaska and on tribal lands.

Even though forecasters predicted the Census likely would fail, said Locke, 72 percent of Americans mailed back their questionnaires. That robust response substantially cut down on the need to send enumerators door-to-door to collect information.

Locke credited several entities with helping the Census project—namely the American people, who demonstrated a strong response rate; organizations, such as religious institutions; businesses, which promoted participation; the organization of Robert Groves, who oversaw the Census; and cost-saving measures executed at the behest of President Obama.

Responding to more criticism generated by another USA Today article about generous salaries for public sector jobs, Locke said, "We know that federal employees include people in highly technical fields, whether it’s doctors or others."

Locke added, “We need to look at it [the salaries] sector-by-sector. Public sector employees are often underpaid. The private sector raids the public sector to fill positions, so the government, whether the local, state and federal, trains them [then loses the workers to higher paying private-sector jobs].”