Counting Americans Overseas as Part of the Decennial Census Would Not Be Cost-Effective
GAO-04-898: Published: Aug 19, 2004. Publicly Released: Sep 14, 2004.
The U.S. Census Bureau (Bureau) has typically counted overseas members of the military, federal civilian employees, and their dependents. However, it usually excluded private citizens residing abroad. In July 2004, the Bureau completed a test of the practicality of counting all overseas Americans. GAO was asked to assess (1) whether the Bureau implemented the test consistent with its design, and (2) the lessons learned from the test results.
The Bureau generally implemented the overseas census test on schedule and consistent with its research design. Still, participation was poor, with just 5,390 questionnaires returned from the three test sites--France, Kuwait, and Mexico. Moreover, because of the low response levels, obtaining those questionnaires proved to be quite expensive--around $1,450 per response, which is far costlier on a unit basis than the 2000 Census. Although the two are not directly comparable because the 2000 Census included operations not used in the overseas test, the 2000 Census cost around $56 per household. Further, boosting the response rate globally might not be practical. On the domestic front, during the 2000 Census, the Bureau spent $374 million on a months-long publicity campaign that consisted of television and other advertising that helped yield a 72-percent return rate. Replicating this level of effort on a worldwide basis would be difficult, and still would not produce a complete count. Ensuring a smooth overseas count could also stretch the Bureau's resources. For example, at each test site the Bureau encountered various challenges that needed to be resolved such as French privacy laws. Moreover, managing a complex operation from thousands of miles away also proved difficult. The approach used to count the overseas population in the 2004 test--a voluntary survey that largely relies on marketing to secure a complete count, lacks the basic building blocks of a successful census. The Bureau has done some initial research on alternatives, but all require more extensive review. Given that the Bureau already faces the difficult task of securing a successful stateside count in 2010, having to simultaneously count Americans abroad would only add to the challenges facing the Bureau.
Matters for Congressional Consideration
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: We recommended that should Congress desire better data on the number of Americans living overseas, Congress might want to consider authorizing and funding research on the feasibility of counting Americans abroad using alternatives to the decennial census. Congress does desire better data on the number of Americans living overseas and has considered funding an initiative to collect data on Americans living overseas, but at this time has decided not to divert resources away from the stateside enumeration. This recommendation is implemented since Congress has considered other options.
Matter: Should Congress still desire better data on the number of overseas Americans, in lieu of the method tested in 2004, Congress might wish to consider authorizing and funding research on the feasibility of counting Americans abroad using alternatives to the decennial census.
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: In FY 2005 Congress implemented this recommendation and eliminated funding to further test an overseas enumeration in 2006. Furthermore, in September 2005, the Bureau completed and released all scheduled evaluations of the 2004 overseas test.
Matter: Given the obstacles to a cost-effective count of overseas Americans as part of the decennial census and, more specifically, obtaining data that is of sufficient quality to be used for congressional apportionment, Congress may wish to consider eliminating funding for any additional research, planning, and development activities related to counting this population as part of the decennial headcount, including funding for tests planned in 2006 and 2008. However, funding for the evaluation of the 2004 test should continue as planned to help inform congressional decision making.
Recommendations for Executive Action
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: The Bureau implemented this recommendation. GAO recommended that the Bureau complete its evaluation of the overseas tests. In September 2005, the Bureau completed and released all eight of its planned evaluation for the 2004 overseas test.
Recommendation: To facilitate congressional decision making, the Secretary of Commerce should ensure that the Bureau completes its evaluation of the 2004 overseas census test as planned.
Agency Affected: Department of Commerce
Status: Closed - Not Implemented
Comments: We recommended that to the extent additional research is authorized and funded, the Bureau should explore the feasibility of counting Americans living overseas by using alternatives to the decennial census. This recommendation is closed not implemented because Bureau is unable to explore alternatives because there is no funding.
Recommendation: To the extent that additional research is authorized and funded, the Bureau, in consultation with Congress, should explore the feasibility of counting overseas Americans using alternatives to the decennial census. Potential options include: (1) conducting a separate survey; (2) examining how the design and archiving of various government agency administrative records might need to be refined to facilitate a more accurate count of overseas Americans; and (3) exchanging data with other countries' statistical agencies and censuses, subject to applicable confidentiality and other provisions.
Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Bureau of the Census