Problems in Test Censuses Cause Concern for 1980 Census

GGD-80-62: Published: Jun 3, 1980. Publicly Released: Jun 16, 1980.

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The 1980 Decennial Census, now underway, affects the distribution of seats in Congress and the disbursement of billions of dollars. Questions have arisen concerning the Census Bureau's low mail response rate in the last test census and the Bureau's experience with temporary personnel in the test censuses and its plans for them in the current census. Bureau records examined on the test censuses included progress reports, correspondence, operations manuals, and budgets. Bureau officials were interviewed to obtain the views of emumerators who worked on the Lower Manhattan test census. The analysis of enumerator productivity in the test censuses was restricted by data limitations, such as the lack of records on the number of enumerators who were paid the minimum rate, composite payroll information on the tests, hours worked, and the number of persons working as reported on test census progress reports.

Higher than expected workloads, staff shortfalls and generally lower than expected productivity combined to delay the completion of the test censuses. The workload and time for taking the census were greatly affected by the questionnaire mail response rates. This rate in test censuses was generally far below Bureau expectations, especially in Lower Manhattan where a 36 percent response rate occurred. A 52.5 percent response rate was estimated for areas like Lower Manhattan and a 72 percent response rate was estimated for all other areas. As of April 10, 1980, data showed that these estimates were being achieved. During the test censuses, enumerator productivity was generally lower than anticipated. Problems in recruiting and retaining enumerators combined with the low productivity resulted in significant delays in completing the tests. The major reason for the 37 to 74 percent enumerator turnover was inadequate pay. Enumerator production standards and piece rates for the 1980 census did not adequately reflect test census experience. The payment scale has not been adjusted because of budgetary limitations. Because the Bureau has not actively recruited part-time help, a greater burden has been placed on the production needed to meet schedules for completing the census. Delays will make it difficult to meet the statutory dates for reporting the census results. GAO believes that the appropriate congressional committees should consider the Bureau's plans for altering census procedures. The plans should include the effect on population coverage improvement and data quality.

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