Duck, Duck, Duck, Goose. Counting Is Busy Work


Don't say Google. You may have found the answer by looking it up there, but the information comes from the U.S. Census Bureau. In fact, counting the number of people in the United States is one of the few very specific acts that government is mandated by the Founding Fathers to do.

The U.S. Constitution has fewer than 5,000 words ... Only a small fraction of what the government actually does is in this founding document. Yet the Constitution requires the United States government to conduct a census every 10 years to determine how many seats each state will have in the House of Representatives.

That's the why of the Census. But this publicly available data are used for so much more than counting members of Congress.

Businesses use Census Bureau information every day to make critical decisions that rely on an understanding of the demographic and economic trends that influence their markets. The importance of this data to business is less understood than it should be. (To help remedy that, we wrote a report on the subject.)

If you walk into a Target store in suburban Florida, the items on the shelves are different from what is in a Target store in downtown Washington D.C. Target makes these decisions in large part using government data. An entrepreneur deciding whether to expand his business to a new city will use the data to study his potential customer and employee base. Businesses use official government statistics to benchmark wages, forecast consumer demand, monitor consumer spending patterns, and more.

As economists Michael Strain and Diane Schanzenbach point out, government uses this data in many ways as well, like in deciding where to divvy up federal taxpayer dollars to designate them to children’s health insurance or unemployment insurance or school meals.

Collecting the data is one of the things government actually does well, but this collection is now in jeopardy, in part because of the rising cost of conducting the Census and the leadership vacuum at the bureau. The department has come up with cost-saving ideas using innovative technology, but the methodology has to be tested before the 2020 Census, and Congress and the president are cutting the funding.

This may not sound so sexy for anyone trying to earn a living (although the Census Bureau hires hundreds of thousands of temporary workers ahead of and during the Census-taking years), the authors call the lack of foresight "penny-wise and pound-foolish," ultimately resulting in wasting taxpayer money and reducing the quality of the data.

Would you go work for the Census as a head-counter? Here's a list of regional offices looking to hire people for field jobs.