March 26, 2010 | WSJ Blogs Real Time Economics | Original Article

2010 Will Be a Tough Census

The 2010 Census is likely to be one of the more challenging population counts in recent history, a fact that could raise the cost of the census and reduce the accuracy of the count.

“The recession could make it a lot harder to find people,” says Sean Reardon, a professor at Stanford University, who studies income inequality.

It all comes down to bad timing. The government always knows when the census will be, but the state of the economy is a crapshoot. This year’s census will take place in the aftermath of the worst recession in a generation. While economists say it’s likely the U.S. emerged from recession sometime around summer 2009, the jobless rate is expected to remain well above 9% for the remainder of the year.

The past few censuses, though, have been in relatively prosperous times. The 1980 Census came at the beginning of a recession, and was thus closer to a peak than a trough. The 1990 Census came just before the 1990-1991 recession. The 2000 Census was done well before the March 2001 recession began.

Doing the census in the wake of a deep recession could affect the count in a number of ways. For starters, economic troubles are forcing a lot of people to move around, or to move in with relatives. That means they could be omitted, because they’ll be between homes when the census mailing comes.

Also, census workers seeking people who didn’t answer their surveys will face an arduous task searching through neighborhoods rife with foreclosed homes. The difficulty in finding people, in turn, will raise the cost of the census. The Census Bureau has estimated that each 1% increase in mailed forms saves $85 million, since the government doesn’t have to track those people down.