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Census Improvement Earns Voss A White House “Hammer”

Taking inventory of 275 million people may never come easy, but a UW-Madison rural sociologist is being honored for helping make it more efficient.

Paul Voss, a professor of rural sociology, is part of a U.S. Census Bureau team that received a “Hammer Award” June 23 from the National Partnership for Reinventing Government. The award is Vice President Al Gore”s effort to recognize federal employees and collaborators who are making government run better and cost less.

The award went to the team of more than 30 people who created the American Community Survey (ACS), a new census program that will complement the once-a-decade canvassing of the American populace. ACS grew out of widespread concern that the current system is cumbersome and outdated.

ACS, which is already being piloted in 37 U.S. counties, takes an ongoing monthly sample of a much smaller group of people. Over the course of a year, ACS collects enough aggregate data to give people useful demographic information about their communities.

The point is to sample a much smaller percentage of a community, but ask very detailed information and do so more frequently.

ACS proponents believe it will solve problems with census data becoming too old too fast, leaving the federal government and communities to make decisions based on seven, eight and even nine-year-old data.

“We needed a radical remake of how the census performs,” Voss says.

“This is an imaginative way of approaching the need for current data, and relieving some of the burden on people responding.”

The census is crucial number-crunching, Voss says. At stake is the approximately $160 billion to $180 billion in federal funding that flows to state, county, city and school programs. Census information is a key measure of federal programs that serve the elderly, school-age children in poverty, and others.

“This is a necessity to understand who we are as a people,” he says.

Voss, a census specialist for UW Extension, began his involvement with the ACS effort as one of its harshest critics. He was concerned the approach would help cities but leave towns and sparsely populated areas behind. Changes were made to address those concerns, he says.

So far, the ACS pilot sites have shown remarkable results. While the 1990 census had only a 65 percent response rate, ACS has so far received responses from 98 percent of citizens.

Two northern Wisconsin counties – Vilas and Oneida – are part of the ACS pilot. Voss says they were chosen because of their unique population base, which is very different in the summer and winter due to seasonal tourism. Other counties in the deep South and those with large migrant worker populations were chosen for similar reasons.

Voss has been working with the U.S. Census Bureau for years. He is on the Commerce Secretary”s Advisory Committee for the 2000 Census and the Census Advisory Committee of Professional Associations.

The 2000 Census cranks up next March. By the time enumerators hit the streets, the Census Bureau will be the largest employer in America with more than 300,000 temporary workers. The bureau plans to have ACS replace the long-form portion