The Endless Struggle of Census Engagement

A look into the Census Bureau's time honored tradition of getting people to respond to their surveys

Mon 23 January 2023 5 minutes

While perusing the Internet for the latest on the United States Census (because there's always sometimes something happening there), I came upon a blog post written by Robert Santos, the current director of the U.S. Census Bureau. He's written extensively in the past about his experience and his work in data science, but this post in particular was the standard "Welcome to 2023! Here's what's going on with us"-type composition. You can read it here.

It's always interesting to get a behind the scenes look at how something operates, where the process is being hampered and results are coming up short, so my mind became curious when approaching the goals he laid out for his team for the coming year:

Modernization of surveys. Household and economic surveys are witnessing continued declines in participation rates as well as accompanying elevation of per unit costs. We will begin with candidate surveys that can start the process and benefit most from immediate attention, using lessons learned to then apply to all.

Robert L. Santos

This topic of "engagement" harkens back to our post from September about the work going into the 2030 census. With it being the new year, and this being a major component of the Census Bureau's plans for the next 12 months (though it's pretty well known, even when accounting for our coverage of race and ethnicity that outreach has always been the major goal of the administration), we thought it'd be a good time to take a look at exactly what hinders this engagement historically.

To start, a glance at the response rate for the American Community Survey showcases what Santos was highlighting: while the response rate has been in the same general window (92.0% - 96.7% from 2014 to 2018), it was in 2019 that the rate dropped below 90% for the first time since 2013 (and 2013 was the only year at that point that the percentage was that low). For the last few surveys, the response rate has remained low, no doubt partly hampered by COVID. But what about the Decenniel Census instead?

Every decade, when the Decenniel Census is held, a final response rate is given as an estimate of general participation. In 1990, it was 65%; in 2000, 67%; in 2010, 66.5%; and finally, in 2020, it was 67% again. So the Decenniel Census has always been in the same ballpark of the mid-60s range. What exactly hampers participation?

Some of this was explored by an article at The Conversation, written by Jessica Stanford. While this doesn't explain the drop-off that began in ACS 2019, it does give a general sentiment to what might be influencing this despondency to the survey, the gist being mistrust.

In the context of the 2020 census, you obviously had the impact of a pandemic, but there was also controversy surrounding the fear that the survey would be used to find and deport undocumented immigrants. Running alongside this is the general pattern of certain populations, such as Black and Hispanic communities, traditionally being underrepresented compared to White and Asian communities.

So that's a big part of what "engagement" means in this context. On one hand, allowing for a digital census to possibly occur, like it does in other countries, can do a lot of good, but some of the bigger challenges heading toward 2030 lie in building trust with those specific undercounted communities that mistrust various parts of the government, like the U.S. Census Bureau. What this might look like is building transparency on the importance of the survey and what it does while also expanding outreach to build trust over where this information is going. Naturally, though, these sorts of challenges are going to be pervasive, beyond even 2030, and will find new mutations such as household makeup changing as housing prices increase, for example. Like with most things, the hardest part is communicating the importance and necessity of it, and with any luck and hard work, the 2030 census will have a response rate increase of a grand 1%.

Header image sourced with permission from EASY DRAW.

Subscribe to be notified of updates to data sets. We don't spam, and we don't share your email address.

More From the Blog

Browse Census Data by State

Browse Census Data by U.S Territory