The decennial census is essential for federal programs that support children

BlogFamiliesJan 31 2018

American democracy relies on a periodic headcount that is accurate and unbiased in order to maintain our nation’s commitment to fair representation. That’s why it’s critically important to ensure proper funding and safeguards for our strongest and most far-reaching data collection effort: the decennial census.

The decennial census (mandated by our Constitution) underpins many American institutions. The census population count provides the basis for legislative re-apportionment (our enactment of the “one person, one vote” principle). Further, decennial census data are used to allocate an estimated $600 billion in federal assistance to states and communities. Each year, $20 billion in federal supports for young children—through Head Start; the Maternal and Child Health Services Block Grant; the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children; and the Child Care and Development Block Grant programs—are distributed to communities based on census counts of children under age 5. Census data are also the benchmark against which surveys are calibrated for maximum accuracy, so inaccuracies in the decennial count can reverberate broadly.

Planning and implementing the decennial census is such a massive undertaking that it has been described as our country’s greatest peacetime mobilization effort. In fact, efforts to administer the decennial census must begin as soon as the previous census is complete. And the effort requires changing with the times: over the history of the census, questionnaires have migrated from paper-and-pencil formats, to telephone surveys, to internet-based response forms.

A successful census must account for the attitudes and preferences (privacy, self-described identities, preferred languages, and so on) of an increasingly diverse America. It must also reassure those who are reluctant to participate in the census that their response will help—not harm—their families and communities. The census will garner maximum participation only if all Americans are assured that their personal information will be securely transmitted, treated with discretion and respect for privacy, and used to fairly serve our communities. Achieving these goals requires outreach, pilot testing in multiple languages and formats, and other techniques that survey scientists and IT specialists have developed to minimize barriers to participation and ensure data security—all of which require resources and time to complete.

And yet, due to chronic underfunding and the absence of appropriate leadership in recent years (the position of Census Bureau director is still unfilled), the 2020 Census may be in danger of failing to meet its mandates. Budget shortfalls have restricted efforts to conduct outreach and testing, potentially weakening the effectiveness of the census when it is finally fielded. And amid growing public uncertainty over how to distinguish accurate information and reliable research from fiction, some Americans may have lost sight of the fact that our nation is utterly dependent on good data—and, by extension, the institutions that produce it. Furthermore, recent correspondence between federal agencies and Congress suggests that a new question regarding citizenship is under consideration. Such last-minute and untested changes that risk lowering response rates are ill-advised.

Our nation cannot afford to have its information infrastructure weakened; an inaccurate 2020 Census will leave an enduring legacy that extends into communities across the nation, potentially causing damage for decades. We rely on an accurate headcount to allocate our resources, monitor and evaluate our efforts to create healthier and more prosperous communities, plan for our nation’s future, and preserve our democratic political system. The decennial census is essential to those tasks, and its quality and integrity must be safeguarded.

This research was funded in part by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. We thank them for their support
but acknowledge that the findings and conclusions presented in this report are those of the author(s)
alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Foundation.