Why a Fair and Accurate Census Matters to Thriving Private and Public Sectors

Why is the census important?

The U.S. Constitution requires an accurate count of the nation’s population every 10 years through a nationwide census. In addition, the Census Bureau collects more detailed socio-economic data on U.S. households each year through the American Community Survey (ACS), which is a legal part of the decennial census.1 Together, the census and the ACS produce some of the nation’s best data for understanding the characteristics of the population and the needs of people living in the United States.

The 2020 Census and the ACS are currently facing fiscal, operational, and policy threats that could jeopardize a fair and accurate count, which would weaken data used by the health care, education, housing, local government, transportation, and manufacturing sectors and could reduce federal funding of critical programs. Stakeholders should engage now in efforts to protect these crucial data collection activities.

Accurate information is needed across sectors to make strategic decisions regarding the services, programs, and products that are provided, funded, and utilized. An inaccurate measure of the U.S. population and its characteristics could deprive key public and private sectors of vital resources needed to ensure they are meeting each community’s needs.

Why is the census an urgent issue right now?

Counting every person in the United States is a massive and complex undertaking even under the best conditions. Ensuring a fair, inclusive, and accurate count requires careful planning, continual updating of address information, advance testing of procedures and technology, and the hiring, training, and oversight of a large temporary workforce to gather and process the data. Some groups of people have historically proven to be challenging to count accurately.

The census misses disproportionate numbers of people of color, urban and rural low-income households, and young children. The Census Bureau classifies these communities, as well as immigrant, limited English proficient, and single-parent headed households, as “hard-to-count.” Accurately enumerating these communities takes a focused effort.

There are additional challenges facing the 2020 Census. The Census Bureau is working against the clock and is already behind schedule. Congress must make sure that the bureau has adequate funding now to bolster outreach and promotion activities, boost the number of partnership specialists hired, and have the proper footprint in the field.

Cyber-security threats; fear of government authorities, which permeates some communities in every state and region; disengagement from civic life in communities hit by drug epidemics – these are just some of the external factors working against a successful 2020 Census.

Still other problems could have been avoided: lack of a Senate-confirmed Census Director and other permanent top staff at the Census Bureau; delayed and generally insufficient annual funding throughout the research, testing, and planning phases; and an 11th hour proposal to add an unnecessary and untested citizenship question to the 2020 Census form.

Decisions made now by Congress and federal agencies – including the Commerce Department, the Census Bureau, and the Office of Management and Budget – will determine whether planning, operations, and funding are sufficient to do the job right.