Is the U.S. Census Senseless? Measuring What Counts

05/15/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One hundred twenty million of us received the same letter last week. It was a simple warning from the U.S. Census that we would be receiving our mandatory Census form in the next week. The U.S. government spent $57 to $85 million (depending upon the statistic you believe) to send us this silly letter. Get this: we are spending $10 billion to conduct the Census this year. For what purpose? We're asking just 10 very simple questions that only relate to demographics, where you live, and who you live with. It seems that the only purpose of the Census today is to figure out how to reapportion congressional districts and rejigger governmental budgets. Did any of our elected representatives ever consider, "If we're going to spend bucket loads of billions, couldn't we ask some more meaningful questions that would help us to understand the hopes and dreams of the American people?"

This ritual of counting the population every decade started in 1790 and there was a time we asked more interesting questions. In the early days, we asked questions that related to how many free white males over the age of 16 were in the household, partly due to America's need to marshal militia quickly as a new nation. The 1850 census started counting slaves, women, and children and asked questions about social statistics like schooling and "pauperism" -- clearly, this foreshadowed the emergence of slaves' and women's' rights. The 1930 census was the last one to ask detailed questions of American citizens as learning the zeitgeist of the American people was important during the Great Depression. Since that time, the number of questions asked in the Census has dwindled to 34 in 1940, 20 questions in 1950, and now down to half that many 60 years later. Is it that we're less interested in what's going on in the hearts and minds of our citizenry today? Or, are we more reliant on Gallup to ask the interesting questions? We certainly have the technology and understanding of how to make consumer inquiries such that we could make the Census a more revealing endeavor every ten years. Heck, even little Bhutan asks its third world citizenry annual questions like "How happy are you?" and "How satisfied are you with how you spend your time each day?" Isn't it about time we asked our citizens more thoughtful questions about what truly counts in life?

What if the U.S. government thought of the U.S. Census as being the ultimate customer satisfaction survey? You know, we all get those surveys after we've stayed at a hotel or bought something online. This exercise gives us the opportunity to be heard and to help the company understand how they can better serve the needs of their customers. If we're going to spend $10 billion on a survey, why not ask questions that can allow our government to both better understand what we're looking for as citizens (and how we're feeling) as well as give us an opportunity to offer suggestions of how the government could serve us better. Americans want a more responsive government and they're certainly used to giving feedback as customers. Nearly one-third of us will not send our Census forms back in the mail in time and, thus, we will be visited (after April 1) by a Census worker at home who will ask these same banal ten questions in person. What a lost opportunity! How many companies make the investment to go and visit their customers in person at home to hear live feedback?

We have a decade to prepare for the next Census so let's start giving feedback to our elected officials that it's time for a real American revolution. It's time for our Census to ask us about what truly counts in our lives. There was a time when the Census was more about understanding who we were than just mechanically counting which box we fit in. It seems all too fitting that the official National Census Day (April 1) is on April Fool's Day. Census or Senseless?