By Terri Ann Lowenthal, Funders Census Initiative Consultant

June 2015

The 2020 Census can be summed up in one vintage phrase: This is not your grandfather’s decennial population count.

The U.S. Census Bureau is planning major reforms for the way it counts the population, but big changes mean big challenges for funders and grantees that care about an accurate census in underrepresented and underserved communities. The 2020 Census might seem far off, but decisions the Census Bureau is making now will affect the accuracy of the count for communities of color and other historically undercounted population groups.

In 2010, 150,000 field workers walked every street and road in the country, verifying addresses and map locations a year before the count started. The Census Bureau mailed questionnaires to nearly 100 million addresses and asked people to mail back the forms. Half a million census-takers — clipboards and pencils in hand — visited the 30 percent of households that didn’t respond, trying to collect information from reluctant residents. The brick-and-mortar infrastructure to oversee this vast operation included nearly 500 local census offices managed by 12 Regional Census Centers. Total ten-year cost: $13 billion.

Five years later, the population has grown and continues to diversify. But Congress wants to spend less for the 2020 Census than it did for the 2010 count. So the Census Bureau has been researching and testing new methods to bring down census costs while maintaining accuracy. Sweeping operational reforms could include:

  • Using government and commercial databases, aerial imagery, and other geospatial resources to update the master address list. Census workers would canvass only targeted areas where new development or housing change is likely.
  • Offering Internet response on multiple platforms (computers, tablets, smartphones, etc.) as the primary means of participating. Paper forms would still be available.
  • Automating the “non-response follow-up” operation, with handheld computers for census takers and ‘virtual’ training and staff management. Possible outcome: Six regional offices; 150 local offices; and far fewer temporary enumerators.
  • Using data collected for other government programs (called administrative records) to count some or all households that don’t self-respond.

The window of opportunity to finalize plans for 2020 is closing fast; the bureau will conduct an end-to-end operational readiness test in 2018. Plans to modernize the census are promising, but complex, and significant concerns remain. How will the digital divide and privacy concerns affect Internet response rates? How can community leaders best promote census participation among limited English proficient households? Do administrative records (e.g. IRS; Medicaid; food stamp program; Medicare) contain accurate data on race, ethnicity, and household relationships? Will a reduced field presence make it more difficult to convince “hard to count” households to respond?

The tight budget for census planning and implementation could lead to a less accurate count of historically undercounted population groups, including people of color, low income and rural households, immigrant communities, and very young children (especially minority children). The consequences are real: political representation is skewed for a decade and fewer government and business resources are allocated to areas that need the most assistance.

Advocates for under-represented communities must have a seat at the table as the Census Bureau finalizes plans for 2020 and Congress decides how much it is willing to pay to ensure a fair, comprehensive count of all Americans.  Inaction could have dire consequences for the health of our democracy. It is vital the philanthropic community engage now to help ensure the most complete, accurate and fair count possible.