Ideas. Action. Results.

Why an Accurate Census Count in 2020 Matters

By Nick Hart, Meron Yohannes

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The colossal task of counting every individual in the country as prescribed by the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment will launch on April 1, 2020, and for the first time, the Census Bureau’s count of the population will be primarily web-based.

The Census Bureau’s efforts to better use technology and web-based approaches for the decennial census are long overdue. The shift to more efficient data collection mechanisms will help improve data quality and accuracy while containing the costs of the census.

Four key reasons why a reliable count matters for the country:

  • Understanding Population Demographics: The information collected during the census provides key statistics about the population’s characteristics. This information helps elected officials and policymakers understand the population they serve. The information also helps businesses research potential locations and grasp new opportunities relevant to their bottom line. The core demographic information about households includes the age, race, ethnicity, gender, years spent in a household for every person in the country.
  • Allocating Government Representation: The U.S. Constitution outlines that the census is used to allocate and apportion seats for the House of Representatives equitably. Geographic shifts in population can result in a reduction or increase in the number of House members for that state. In addition, census data are used to set the boundaries for various governmental entities, like congressional districts, state legislative districts, school districts, and voting precincts.   
  • Distributing Grant Funding for Programs: State and federal governments use census data to provide grant funds, ensuring that certain program funding streams are allocated based on defined needs in the population, which in turn helps programs focus on having an impact on specific populations. The Census Bureau estimates that more than $675 billion in federal funding is allocated through formula grants using census data.
  • Building Rigorous Evidence about Government Policies: Data from the census are used to develop sampling frames for surveys of households over the subsequent decade. Ensuring reliable census counts helps minimize statistical bias in policy research and evaluation that is used to understand whether government policies are effective and under what conditions.    

Privacy Protections

While census data provide substantial benefits to society, the data are also protected with strong privacy safeguards. The key law governing the Census Bureau, Title 13 of the U.S. Code, affords strict confidentiality protections and limits on how data can be used. For example, the Census Bureau is prohibited from publicly disclosing data that could lead to an individual being identified in summary statistics or public use data files. Under the law, violations of these vital confidentially safeguards are punishable with criminal and civil penalties that could include up to five years in jail, a fine of up to $250,000, or both.

These strong privacy protections help elicit trust from the American public that data will be held in confidence, but still made useful for providing statistics that benefit society. The Census Bureau is also constantly exploring new approaches and techniques to continue improving protections. For example, the Census Bureau is exploring applications of an approach called “differential privacy” for data products released from the 2020 census.

In conclusion, the Census Bureau’s efforts to use web-based approaches must be balanced with requirements for strong confidentiality and cybersecurity protections. Doing so ensures accurate data are available for generating evidence that is useful in policymaking, which in turn can spur policies that have a positive impact on the American public. 

KEYWORDS: EVIDENCE-BASED POLICYMAKING INITIATIVE, U.S. CENSUS BUREAU