Urban Wire The 2020 Census is complex, vulnerable, and vital to our democracy
Emily Peiffer
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April 1, 2020, might feel far in the future. But for the US Census Bureau, the start of the next decennial census is virtually upon us. Orchestrating a decennial census of more than 300 million people requires 10 years of significant preparation, funding, and labor.

No two decennial censuses are the same, especially as technology is rapidly changing. And funding challenges and new approaches have many worried about the success of the 2020 Census. But regardless of threats and challenges, participation is key to achieving the constitutional mandate to accurately count every resident in the country.

The following conversation includes Diana Elliott, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute and a former family demographer at the US Census Bureau, and Robert Santos, vice president and chief methodologist at the Urban Institute. Together, they explore common misconceptions about the decennial census, discuss challenges facing the 2020 Census, and explain why the census matters not just to politicians, but to everyone.

What is the decennial census?

Santos: The decennial census represents the nation’s endeavor each decade to count every resident of the United States. It is incredibly important both for policy and governance that we have a population count every 10 years so the country can do things like allocate funding to states for schools and roads, as well as determine the number of representatives going to each state in the US Congress.

How does the decennial census differ from the annual American Community Survey (ACS)?

Elliott: The ACS, which started collecting data in 2005, mails questionnaires to a sample of 295,000 US addresses per month. It can’t speak necessarily to fine-tuned geographic detail as well as the census. The advantage of the ACS is that it asks more questions of fewer households and is conducted more frequently. The advantage of the census is that it’s streamlined and asks everyone fewer questions, with the intent of making high-level government decisions.

How is the 2020 Census different from previous years?

Elliott: It will be more web based in 2020. The Census Bureau wants people to complete the decennial census form first through an online link, mail, or phone, and then if people don’t respond, there will be follow-up at their doors. In the last few decades, the decennial census has used a form delivered in the mail. The Census Bureau will continue to accept mail returns, but the web option has the potential to save a lot of time and money. In fact, the Census Bureau needs a large portion of the population to complete the census online to stay on budget.

But with that comes the risk of the unknown of the web-based survey and security elements around it. There’s some concern that there are nefarious types that want to cause harm. There’s also a concern about whether the system can handle all that data.

What is the timeline for the 2020 Census?

Elliott: Right now, the Census Bureau is in the process of opening local area offices. They’re opening fewer offices than in 2010. They’re trying to figure out how to do this more efficiently. They’re also in the process of recruiting and hiring temporary address listers for address canvassing; then, they’ll start canvassing, where they try to check and make sure they have the most complete and up-to-date list of addresses. Printing of the surveys will begin in April 2019. Then, in the fall of 2019, they’ll start recruitment of enumerators. The Census Bureau is aiming to hire over 380,000 enumerators for 2020.

April 1, 2020, is enumeration day, when the census begins. All summer that year, enumerators will be knocking on doors and following up with people. Then there’s data cleaning and processing. December 31, 2020, is the deadline for the Census Bureau to transmit state population totals and congressional apportionment numbers. That’s the first big release of data.

What are some concerns regarding planning for the 2020 Census?

Santos: Over the past 10 years, Congress has consistently underfunded the census, which means the type of testing that historically has been done has been shortchanged. For the 2020 Census, they curtailed some testing. They cancelled a planned Spanish-language test census. They also significantly reduced testing in rural America. And in 2018, they only conducted a single site dress rehearsal test. They are gambling—out of necessity—that they’ll be able to proceed with less-than-optimal testing.

Elliott: That one end-to-end testing site was in Providence, Rhode Island. It’s a fairly dense urban area, and they cut out a rural testing site. That concerns us.

In addition to funding for operations and testing being diminished, there’s some suggestion that the funding and timeline for outreach has been delayed. Outreach is hugely important, especially for contacting people who are potentially hard to count, like groups who speak diverse languages, and making them aware of the census.

There is also a concern right now about hiring for field offices because we’re in a pretty good labor market with a low unemployment rate. Finding enough people who need jobs and could readily become enumerators won’t be as easy as it was in 2010.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about the decennial census?

Elliott: People don’t know that it’s constitutionally mandated. Another misconception is privacy concerns. The American public often doesn’t understand that census employees have to take an oath (to uphold Title 13) that they will safeguard the data. There are huge fines if they violate that.

Santos: The Census Bureau is not just asking questions because it would be nice to know. Every question appears for a reason, and typically there is a long history behind it. There’s also a misconception that other parts of the government have access to all the detailed census information. Title 13 protects against that. Other government agencies have only the access to census data that the public has.

Why is participation in the census so important?

Santos: There doesn’t exist a sector of society that would not benefit from everyone participating. It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re a commercial entity, a local policymaker, a member of an advocacy group, whether you’re impoverished or a billionaire, white or a minority, educated or less educated. Everybody will benefit because everybody relies on this information.

We have turned into an information-rich society that depends on information to make decisions and to guide us to where we need to be and to learn about each other to better understand our needs and respond to them.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros
Tags Immigrant communities demographics and trends Federal urban policies Immigrant children, families, and communities 2020 Census
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population