2020 Census: Deconstructed

First taken in 1790, the constitutionally-mandated census is the “single largest mobilization and operation conducted in the United States” according to the Census Bureau. Indeed, once per decade, billions of dollars are spent and hundreds of thousands of American workers are mobilized in order to complete the monumental task of counting every single resident in the United States. Yet, the census holds far more significance than a mere population count; the data collected by the census provides the basis for essential democratic processes such as the apportionment of congressional seats, redrawing of voter districts, planning of public health policies, and disbursal of federal funds. With the next edition of the census to be fully underway by  April 1, 2020, this series of posts will cover the inner workings of the census count, the importance of an accurate count, and, finally, several of the controversies associated with the census. 


How It Works

Though Census Day takes place on April 1, the official headcount of US residents is set to commence on January 21st in Toksook Bay, Alaska. By mid-March, letters with census participation instructions will arrive at approximately 95% of households around the nation. About 5% of households, most of which do not physically receive mail due to unique circumstances such as natural disasters or use of PO boxes, will receive their census invitation in-person from a census taker. Finally, less than 1% of households will be counted personally by a census taker- this is the case in very remote areas of the nation such as northern Maine. All in all, every US household should either receive a letter in the mail or be visited in-person by a census taker by April 1, 2020. 

As for the process of filling out the census itself, the 2020 Census incorporates several significant shifts in data collection methods. To begin with, over 80% of US households will receive an invitation to submit their responses online for the first time ever. The remaining 20% of households, mostly consisting of older-adult populations or those with limited internet access, will be mailed or delivered the standard paper questionnaires. However, even though these households will have the option to submit their answers by mail, they will still be encouraged to complete the census online. For those 80% of households invited to fill out the survey online, a paper questionnaire will be mailed in the event that they fail to respond initially. Also for the first time, the 2020 Census will include the option of calling an area-specific 1-800 number to provide responses over the phone. Finally, if households do not submit their answers through any of these three methods, the Bureau will send census field workers, known as enumerators, door-to-door to physically collect the data.

Overall, these innovations to response collection are meant to offset the massive costs of sending enumerators to physically travel to households that fail to complete the survey, an event known as “nonresponse follow up.” Census response rates have been in steady decline since 1970, which has only compounded the costs of running nonresponse follow ups- in fact, the 2010 census was the costliest one ever. With the introduction of the three-fold options to complete the census first online, then by mail or over the phone, the Bureau is moving away from door-to-door canvassing and in-person follow ups has been said to  save an estimated $5.2 billion in costs


Who Is Counted

Quite simply, the 2020 census will count every person living in the United States- regardless of citizenship or immigrations status. International visitors (i.e. on vacation or a business trip) to the US during the census are not included in the count. Generally, residents are counted at the address where they “live and sleep most of the time,” regardless of where they happen to be located on census day. For those who do not have a usual place of residence, they are counted where they are staying on Census Day. 

For US citizens that are outside of the country on census day, there are a few different rules that apply. Residents traveling outside the US are still counted where they live and sleep most of the time. However, almost all US citizens living outside the United States on Census day are not counted in the stateside census. The exception lies only with military and civil employees of the US government that are stationed or assigned outside of the United States on Census Day. These people, as well as any dependents living with them at the time, are counted as part of the US federally affiliated overseas population. Military and civilian employees of the US government that are on temporary deployments outside of the country are still counted at the US residence where they live and sleep most of the time. 


What Questions Will Appear On the Census?

Most of the questions planned for the 2020 census are similar to those that have appeared on census forms in recent counts. Some examples include:

  • The number of people living or staying in a home on April 1, 2020.
  • The type of residence (house, apartment, mobile home) and whether the home is owned with or without mortgage, rented, or occupied without rent.
  • A telephone number for a person living in the home.
  • The name, sex, age, date of birth and race of each person in the home.


The 2020 Census will also feature a few notable changes to the questions it poses. First of all, the form will include write-in areas under the question of race for those of non-Hispanic origins. For example, those identifying as white may choose to answer more specifically with an answer such as “German,” while those identifying as black may choose an option such as “Jamaican.” Additionally, new household relationship categories will provide “same-sex” and “opposite-sex” options for couples living together. 

Overall, many of the innovations made to the 2020 Census are aimed towards improving the accessibility and accuracy of the count. While the question of “who is counted” remains the same, the census response options and the questions asked on the survey have undergone changes that reflect the shifts in society over the past decade. The census is no longer based on a foundation of paper forms and door-to-door canvassing, with the introduction of online and telephone options largely supplanting those traditional methods of data collection. Simultaneously, the questions asked on the 2020 Census further incorporate social developments in the areas of race, gender, and same-sex partnerships that have progressed over the past decade. 


Read the other blogs in this series: