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Terence Jeffrey / Apr. 8, 2009

Selling the Welfare State Through the Census

The Constitution mandates that a census be taken every 10 years so that the members of the House of Representatives can be apportioned among the states according to their population.

But as the Census Bureau prepares to undertake the 2010 census, it is planning to stress a far different purpose for the population count, according to its own carefully crafted communications plan.

This plan is detailed in a 351-page Census Bureau document titled “2010 Census Integrated Communications Campaign Plan” that is posted on the bureau’s Website.

On page 10 of this plan, the bureau states that the “unifying idea for all communications” about the 2010 census is: “Only you can make the census ours.”

It says that this idea will be “expressed in the marketplace” through the phrase, “It’s in our hands.”

“This is the broad, overarching platform, unifying all messaging,” the plan says of the phrase, “It’s in our hands.”

Now, these phrases may look to you like lyrics from a Barry Manilow song, but to the people running next year’s constitutionally mandated count of all people in the United States, they are very serious words.

“Using census data as the basis, and overlaying that with advertising industry marketing consumption data, we can generate a picture of populations of people who require additional efforts to respond, and the media they consume,” a Census Bureau spokesman told me. “2010 Census messaging was tested via surveys and numerous focus groups (see online research information). The unifying idea for messaging is the result of that extensive research and testing.”

On page 29 of its plan, the Census Bureau explains “What ‘Only You Can Make the Census Ours’ Means” – doing so in the imagined words of a U.S. resident being asked to participate in the census.

Participating in the census, it turns out, is all about “change” and “more funding.”

“I have an opportunity to help make a difference for my community, my family and myself,” says the imagined resident. “It’s literally in my hands, in the form of the 2010 Census questionnaire. The Census is much more than a piece of paper. It’s a tool that I can put to work to ignite positive change.

"My participation in the 2010 Census can be the tipping point that helps make change possible,” says the Census Bureau’s imagined U.S. resident. “And the more of us who fill out and mail back the Census, the more of us who want to tell a friend, to tell a friend, to tell a friend, the more funding we might get to help improve our lives and the lives of those who are important to us.”

In other words, the person the Census Bureau imagines it is targeting with its communications plan is not someone who looks at himself as a net payer of taxes but someone who looks at himself as a net taker of government funding.

He is a moocher.

In fact, the Census Bureau’s communications plan says its studies indicate that the way to sell people on participating in the census is to tell them that they get “benefits” for doing so.

“These studies consistently show that messages that increase knowledge of the benefits of filling out the Census improve motivation and favorability towards Census participation,” says page 24 of the plan. “New primary research among a wide range of target audiences further confirms the importance of communicating Census benefits.”

What kind of “benefits” is the Census Bureau talking about? It elaborates on the very next page.

“Consistently, across all audiences, statements related to the benefits of Census participation were motivating to respondents,” says page 25. “Filling out the Census provides an opportunity to help people in your local community get certain benefits, such as healthcare, school programs, day care and job training. The Census determines how over $300 billion per year in federal funds get divided among states and local areas of the country. Information from the Census helps the government plan for future improvements to schools, roads, and fire and police stations.”

To be sure, the Census Bureau’s plan does note that the census is used to apportion representation in Congress. But that is not the main thrust of its platform, those immortal words: “It’s in our hands.”

Says the plan: “One of the main objectives of the messaging that supports the ‘It’s in Our Hands’ platform is to communicate the benefits of filling out the Census form, or to explain, ‘What’s in it for me?’”

Simply put, the government is selling the 2010 census to a population it considers already sold on the welfare state.


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