Tale of the Totem: $23G Census Project to Thaw Alaska Hearts and Minds Questioned

They tried mailings, launched a multimillion-dollar national ad campaign, hired tens of thousands of people -- they even tried a totem pole.

The $20,000 totem pole art project was commissioned by the Census Bureau with a local Alaskan artist and meant to incorporate both native Alaskan symbols with the spirit of the census and help engage the disparate and hard-to-count communities of America's largest state.

The totem didn't work.

Data provided by the Census Bureau shows that Alaska's mail-in response rate actually was lower this year than in 2000. Sixty-two percent of Alaska residents mailed back their census forms in 2010, compared with 64 percent in 2000.

Not only that, but despite a tripling of the bureau's ad budget to about $340 million, the mail-in response rate nationwide clocked in at 72 percent -- same as a decade ago.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who's been highly critical of what he claims is census over-spending, said Thursday the totem pole was just "the latest example of a mismanaged agency spending taxpayers' money like it grows on trees -- or totem poles."

"The American people are right to be furious with a Washington that spends so recklessly, cooks the books to cover its tracks and thinks it's a good idea to buy a $23,000 totem pole while more than 14.6 million people are unemployed," he said in a written statement to FoxNews.com.

Still, the bureau has touted this year's results and is standing by the totem pole, which is making its way from Alaska to Washington, D.C., this week. The shipping costs have added another $3,100 to the project -- putting the total totem price tag at about $23,000.

"Certainly it had special meaning with the Alaska native and those tribal communities," Census Bureau spokesman Raul Cisneros said. "Because of that ... it hopefully encouraged Alaska native and native American Indian communities in that part of the country to participate."

Carver Tommy Joseph, who created the totem pole, told the Juneau Empire that even though the project was "out of the ordinary," it was important.

"Everybody needs to be counted," he told the newspaper.

The Census Bureau released a promotional and educational video about the making of the totem pole, tracking Joseph as he created the eight-foot structure out of red cedar.

Despite Alaska's lower turnout this year, the bureau claims that it saved money in the state because the overall cost of counting the Alaska population came in lower than expected.

The bureau also claimed this week that it saved $1.6 billion nationwide over the course of the 2010 Census.

With a $14.7 billion budget, the bureau says the actual cost came in at $13.1 billion thanks to the fact that it did not have to drain $800 million set aside from "natural disasters or operational breakdowns." And more millions were saved because of the number of households that returned their questionnaires by mail -- meaning census workers had fewer homes to visit.

But Republicans questioned those figures.

Issa, ranking Republican on the House government oversight committee, claimed the census was actually over-budget -- since a 2006 Government Accountability Office report estimated the 2010 Census would cost about $11.3 billion

"This is precisely the smoke-and-mirrors budget gimmickry that the American people have come to expect from the federal government," Issa said.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said the Census Bureau spent a lot of money and had little to show for it.

"It is outrageous for the census to tout cost-savings success," he said in a statement. "Compared to the last census, they spent significantly more money and got the same results."