Without the Census, How Would We Plan?

Watch this ad for the 2010 Census. Apparently the Census is doing some Super Bowl activities, including TV spots. Here’s a quote:

If we don’t know how many kids there are, how do we know how many classrooms we need? The Census helps us know exactly what we need, so everyone can get their fair share of funding. We can’t move forward until you mail it back.

First of all, helping the feds apportion education funding is not the purpose of the Census. A decennial enumeration of persons in the U.S. is in the Constitution; federalized education funding is not. But that’s not even the weird thing about the ad.

It’s the assumption that without the Census, local school administrators would be completely unable to plan for the future. It’s as if they’d make a (possibly educated) guess about how many kids will show up and then pray and wring their hands until they get an accurate count on the first day. If they don’t buy enough buns on the first day, will some kid have to go without a sloppy joe? Reminds me of an old Simpsons bit about the dangers of inflexible planning:

Marge: Homer, we have a perfectly good bookcase.

Homer: Yeah, but this is what they’re doing on campus. Besides, it isn’t costing us: I swiped the cinder blocks from a construction site.

[At the “Future site of children’s hospital”, a worker walks forlorn up to his boss]

Worker: Sir, six cinder blocks are missing.

Boss: There’ll be no hospital, then. I’ll tell the children.

Why is that auto manufacturers, homebuilders, retailers, food producers, clothing producers and others who must compete for customers are somehow able to not only plan for changes in population, but also plan for the customers who may or may not voluntarily choose to patronize them? Those companies are in turn serviced by the firms and people that somehow manage to supply just the right amount of steel, lumber, labor, food, textiles and everything else to provide for often competing needs. I realize that the Census can help all these actors at one point or another, but that count tells us precious little about the dynamic preferences of hundreds of millions of people, preferences that are readily accommodated in the marketplace.

Why is a once-a-decade count of people so critical for school planning? Shouldn’t it be easier for public schools to plan for a relatively captive group of “customers”? Beyond that, even if school administrators had perfect information about demographics and the desires of parents and were fully empowered to act on them, would they be more accommodating?

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