Census chief: Online survey will cut cost of 2020 headcount

Departing Census Director Robert Groves tells USA TODAY that the 2020 Census will be conducted in a dramatically different way to slash rising costs.

Changes are also being considered for how millions of Americans identify their race or ethnicity.

An online questionnaire will almost surely be an option -- the Census Bureau's yearly American Community Survey will be online in 2013 -- and the government is exploring the use of administrative records, Groves says.

The 2010 Census cost $13 billion. Ten years earlier, it cost $8.6 billion (in 2010 dollars).

"Saving money is explicitly motivating every research project, and we're trying to save money explicitly without reducing quality," says Groves, who leaves Aug. 10 to become Georgetown University provost. "We're trying to react to the diversity of the American public by offering a lot of different ways they can supply data."

The ultimate goal is to slash the most expensive part of the Census: "Reduce the number of people we have to hire to follow up with people who don't respond on their own," says Groves, who spent two years as director.

Other possible changes in the Census: the way race and ethnicity questions are worded.

The word "negro'' -- now listed on the Census form as one of several options for black or African American -- is likely to be eliminated. The Hispanic category -- which is not a race but an ethnicity -- could be altered to reduce confusion.

Groves calls this "the neatest time in my lifetime" for social researchers. "The challenge in going forward lies in the wise use of existing resources," he says. "What we're doing now will be viewed as another era in 15 years."


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