In short, the census is, to abbreviate former vice president Joe Biden, a big deal. It’s central to U.S. democracy. The count determines how many congressional seats each state gets. On top of that, the results of the census are used to divvy up $675 billion in federal funding each year for everything from health care to highways. The more people who live in a state, the more of those federal dollars come to your home state and district.
So how does it work? Below is the recipe the Census Bureau used in the past — and how it’s supposed to change for 2020, the first “high tech” census.
Step 1: The Census Bureau builds a master list of every address in the United States. That’s happening right now, using U.S. Postal Service records, satellite imagery and other government and business records to refine the list again and again. There are more than 135 million households in the United States.
Step 2: The Census Bureau starts a massive ad campaign to get everyone excited about filling out the form and to explain how to do it (don’t use a purple marker, for example).
Step 3: In 2020, you will get a census notification in the mail. You will be encouraged to fill out the 10-question form online, a new option being unveiled. The 2020 Census is still finalizing the 10 questions, but you can read the ones from 2010 here. There will also be an option to get a paper form and mail it back (just like in 2000 or 2010).
In 2010, 63.5 percent of people responded to the initial mailer. In the 1970s and ’80s, the response rate was over 75 percent. There are concerns that only 55 percent to 60 percent of people will respond this time around due to fears of a data breach or distrust of government.
Step 4: You can call the Census Bureau (call centers are a new approach for 2020) to give your response if you don't want to do online or mail.
Step 5: If you still aren’t responding, the Census Bureau sends a person to knock on your door and ask you the questions. This is why the Census expects to employ more than 500,000 temporary workers in 2020.
Step 6: The Census Bureau will knock on your door up to six different times in an effort to catch someone at home. The bureau is still debating if it should cut that down in 2020. There might not be enough money to revisit people so many times.
In 2000 and 2010, the census managed to get about 98 percent of homes responding by this point. To get the final ones, the bureau has to get creative.
Step 7: A Census worker will ask your neighbors or a manager in your apartment building or subdivision how many people live in your house if they haven’t been able to get a hold of someone at your home.
Step 8: The Census Bureau turns to its “last resort.” They look at any data they have from state or local records about who lives in your home (i.e., tax forms, food stamps, Medicaid roles, etc). In 2020, they are considering using commercial data, as well as a “Plan C,” which could be data from groups like Experian, an agency that tracks people’s credit history.
The goal of the census (heck, the constitutional MANDATE) is to be 100 percent accurate. But nothing is perfect. In the past, the census has acknowledged that it overcounted white people and undercounted minorities and people living in rural communities or rental homes.
How much does the census cost?
The accuracy of Census 2020 is going to come down to technique — and funding. The 2010 Census cost $12.1 billion. The Commerce Department, which oversees the Census, is asking for $15.6 billion, arguing it needs more money now that the population is larger. Congress doesn’t seem willing to go that high. Something will have to give.
“A census of the U.S. would be incredibly cheap if, upon first request, everyone supplied their personal information,” says Robert Groves, director of the 2010 Census who is now provost at Georgetown University. But that never happens. If only 55 percent to 60 percent of the population responds voluntarily, the Census will have to spend a lot of money chasing people down.
One of the easiest ways to get people to respond is through advertising and outreach campaigns, especially in minority and immigrant communities. Groves himself did a lot of presentations in 2009 and 2010. He had to assure people that, yes, the U.S. government wanted to count them, and, no, the government was not taking their information to deport them.
What could go wrong?
Without proper funding, some outreach will get cut. On top of that, another bad hacking incident like what happened with Equifax could scare people into not responding, especially online.
If a lot of people aren’t responding, the Census Bureau will likely have to rely on “Plan C” to use data to fill in the blanks for people the bureau couldn’t reach in person. It’s a largely untested tactic.
“This is not the way you want to conduct a census,” says Kenneth Prewitt, director of the 2000 Census and a current professor at Columbia University. “It’s risky.”
Indivar Dutta-Gupta, a data expert and co-director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, is especially worried about a scenario where the government starts relying on commercial data collected from firms such as Experian, which typically undercount low-income people. “To know someone is between 25 and 40 is all commercial databases care about. That’s not good enough for the census,” said Dutta-Gupta.
For Census 2020, the final process will come down to time and money. Already, the census has been forced to scale back some of its pilot tests and early outreach efforts because of a lack of funding this year. Congress is now debating the funding level for 2018.
“I am worried that the census is headed toward a much less accurate outcome than in the last two decades,” says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director on the House committee overseeing the census and co-founder of the Census Project, a nonpartisan educational group.
This post was updated to clarify that the call centers for Census 2020 will only be receiving calls.