Census Bureau Prepares for 2020 Census
and Continues Annual American Community Survey

Joseph Ahern, Research Fellow
February 10, 2017

On April 1, 2020, a little over three years from now, the U.S. Census Bureau will conduct its decennial Census, counting every person and housing unit in the country. The Census is mandated by the U.S. Constitution with its primary purpose to provide data for apportioning seats in the House of Representatives among the states. Planning activities for 2020 have been underway since the last Census in 2010 and will be accelerating as the decade comes to an end. These activities include compiling address lists, updating geographic databases, finalizing the questionnaire, and designing and testing logistical procedures.

There have been some concerns about adequate funding for this planning process. The Census Bureau is under a Continuing Resolution through April 28, 2017, which maintains FY 2016 funding levels, although the Bureau is permitted to spend at a rate necessary to maintain its schedule according to statutory deadlines. Some activities are on hold until final funding for FY 2017 is determined.

In addition to the decennial complete count, the Census Bureau also conducts the American Community Survey (ACS), which replaced the “long-form” census questionnaire with a sample survey of American households conducted every year. The ACS covers more detailed topics such as education, income, disabilities, and employment. Data from the ACS is used by Congress to allocate more than $400 billion annually in federal assistance to states and localities. ACS data is also used for planning purposes by state and local governments and social service agencies, as well as by private businesses for planning and market research. Community Solutions relies on data from the ACS to compile demographic profiles of counties, neighborhoods, and legislative districts, and to provide baseline population data for surveys and analyses of vital statistics data.

Adequate funding for the ACS is also critical to fulfill the survey’s purpose and improve its operation. The Census Bureau has requested $251 million for the ACS in FY 2017. A significant cut to the ACS budget would likely force the Bureau to cut the survey sample size. That would make it difficult, if not impossible, to provide data for small and less populous areas, including small towns and rural areas, and small population groups such as persons with disabilities. In Northeast Ohio communities, the availability of this data is especially important because there is often significant variation even within a small geographic area. For example, with a smaller sample we would be unable to report much data by municipality within Cuyahoga County, when places like Westlake and Beachwood are very different than Cleveland proper. It would also be impossible to examine even smaller geographies, as we did with our recent Cleveland Neighborhood Profiles (http://www.communitysolutions.com/neighborhood-profiles). A recent article in Science magazine, an organ of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, reported concerns that the new administration may not be fully committed to continuing funding for the ACS (http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/01/scientists-fear-pending-attack-federal-statistics-collection).

By federal law, people’s responses to both the decennial census and the ACS are mandatory. Suggestions have been made to make the ACS voluntary. Experience in both the Canadian census and a trial ACS survey has shown that the response rate would plummet, necessitating an increase in the sample size with its attendant increase in cost.

It is important to remember that the confidentiality of Census responses is the most stringent of any government data collection. The bureau cannot share any personal information with any private or government entity, including law enforcement, immigration, or national security. This ironclad restriction serves to foster confidence among the American people and promotes compliance with the Census.