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The Census Bureau has been counting pennies as well as people. The nearly completed 2010 census is ending the fiscal year 22 percent under budget. That means the Commerce Department will be able to return more than $1.5 billion in unspent funds to the Treasury. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: One big reason the census cost less than expected this year is that Americans were surprisingly cooperative about filling out and mailing in their own forms. Of course, they had plenty of encouragement from civic leaders, church groups, and paid advertisements like this one.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) We can't move forward until you mail it back. The census is a tool. Let's make an impact. Yeah, yeah...

HORSLEY: Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who oversees the census, says the government kept tabs on which cities' residents were slow to complete their forms. The census then bought extra advertising time in those markets. In the end, Locke says, 72 percent of households completed a mail-in questionnaire, better than the 65 percent return rate many analysts were predicting.

Secretary GARY LOCKE (Department of Commerce): For every 1 percent additional mail-back response, we save some $85 million in paying people to go door to door.

HORSLEY: Hundreds of thousands of census employees who were knocking on doors, were also more productive than in years past. In some cases, that means they worked themselves out of a job sooner.

Last month, the government laid off 143,000 Census workers. Locke says the money saved on those positions can now be put to better use.

Secretary LOCKE: These are all temporary jobs that the census workers had, and they all knew that it was going to come to an end. And you know, had we kept, let's say, 200,000 people for an additional month, that would have cost us a billion dollars. But if we can take that billion dollars in savings and put it into permanent job creation, I think that's what these census workers would most like.

HORSLEY: Savings also came from a bit of good luck, as contingency funds set aside for natural disasters during the survey were not needed. Locke says the once-a-decade head-count is now mostly complete. After some double-checking of the figures, the census report will be out later this year.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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