Actually, that may NOT be government junk mail.

Bob Collins at Minnesota Public Radio received a first-class letter from the U.S. Census, telling him that they’ll be sending him another letter next week. The apparent foolishness of the exercise got him thinking about its expense:

There were 105,480,101 households in 2000. At 500 sheets of paper per ream, that’s 210,960 reams of paper for the letter. It’s cheap paper, though. At $40 a case, Office Max has the cheapest price I could find online, so that’s $843,000 for the paper.

Five-hundred envelopes go for $30. That’s another $6.3 million (I’m rounding up and down here; it’s the government after all).

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Finally, there’s the cost of mailing. It’s presorted first-class mail. According to the U.S. Postal Service Web site, pre-sorted mail costs .335, although a standard rate letter could be sent for 17 cents. But this was first-class. Total: $35,335,833.83.

Total: $42.5 million (although I remain somewhat skeptical about the postage) to send you a letter to tell you you’re going to get another letter next week. Oh, and sending a postcard would’ve been $15.8 million cheaper.

The average person pays $13,000 in federal taxes per year. So it took the annual federal taxes of nearly 327 taxpayers to send you the letter.

Even if his figures are a bit off, the point remains: Any amount spent on a seemingly unnecessary letter like this is money wasted. Or is it? Christopher Dorobeck of Federal News Radio, a critic of the letter, thought to contact Census representatives and have them explain themselves. Their response was surprisingly reasonable:

Census surveys show that 45 percent of people don’t know about the Census… And further Census surveys show that these letters increase awareness of the Census. That increased awareness increases the Census form return rate by 6 to 12 percent. That increase has a real return on investment — every 1 percent increase in Census returns saves the government $85 million in operational costs associated with census takers going door to door to follow up with households that did not mail back the form. It costs $57 per household on average to send a Census enumerator out to get the data. 

If one accepts the premise that we need a regular national census, and if this information is correct, then the announcement letter was not the money waster it first appeared.

Kudos to Dorobeck for following up with this. 



  • Brian Saint-Paul

    Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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