The U.S. Census Bureau declared triumphantly in August 2010 that its decennial head count would cost $1.6 billion less than expected.
It made the announcement a full four and a half months before the operation had met its constitutional duty of reporting the nation's population to the president.
"This is a significant accomplishment, and I would like to thank the American public for responding to the census and the more than 255,000 private and public sector partners who joined with us in making the 2010 census a success," Census Bureau Director Robert Groves said in a statement.
Added U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke: "With proficient management, the cooperation of the American public and a little bit of luck, the Census stayed on track with significant cost savings to taxpayers."
Specifically, census officials said the savings were achieved in three specific areas:
- $800 million in unused "contingency funds" set aside for natural disasters or operational breakdowns, events that never materialized.
- $650 million unspent money in door-to-door, follow-up operations. Census officials said the government saved money because a large portion of households - 72 percent - returned the questionnaire by mail, meaning fewer homes had to be visited to obtain census answers. They also said census workers were more efficient.
- $150 million unspent money in other census operations, such as counting the population in Alaska and on tribal lands, which came in at a lower cost.
Returning $1.6 billion to the U.S. Treasury is certainly commendable. But a little perspective is in order.
At $14.7 billion, the budget for the 2010 head count was more than twice that of the roughly $6.5 billion 2000 census, a detail that didn't escape notice of critics.
"It is outrageous for the census to tout cost-savings success," said U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah. "Compared to 2000 they spent significantly more money and got the same results. Even adjusted for population/household growth and inflation, they spent record amounts of money, for roughly the same results."
In the run-up to the 2010 head count, the operation's budget also ballooned by about $3 billion after the Census Bureau was forced to scrap wireless handheld computers.
"You would think the Census Bureau would be good at math. Evidently not," said Chaffetz. "No matter how you slice it they did not save money. In fact, the census is spending an exorbitant amount of dollars to achieve the same response rate."