As the U.S. prepares for the 2020 census, news outlets nationwide will be working to help the public understand the importance and impact of the once-every-10-years population count.
To help journalists bolster their coverage, we reached out to two experts — a research professor at George Washington University and a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau — to ask them to point out weaknesses in and ways newsrooms can improve their census coverage. They offered great feedback.
Below, we highlight seven key takeaways from our interviews with Andrew Reamer, who’s studying the census’ role in the distribution of federal funds at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy, and John H. Thompson, a statistician who held various positions at the Census Bureau over nearly three decades before retiring in 2017 as its top administrator.
- Get a firm understanding of how census data is collected and used before reporting on the implications of an inaccurate tally.
Many journalists don’t realize the complexity of planning and conducting a census. Some don’t realize that many U.S. residents do not fill out and return their census forms and that the Census Bureau has to take other steps to track them down and record them. Thompson says only about 63.5% of households respond. Journalists also don’t understand the role census data play in virtually all areas of American life.
Reamer, who is interviewed often by reporters, says those who aren’t comfortable with numbers tend to have the toughest time covering the nation’s population count. But Thompson says what’s important is that journalists are able to explain complex concepts in terms the average person can understand. “You don’t have to be an expert at math to understand how the census works,” he says.
- Remember: the census itself does not determine federal funding. Data derived from the decennial census helps create other data sets and those are used to determine how the federal government will distribute money to states and local governments as well as individual households and organizations.
Each year, some 325 federal programs use data derived from the census to distribute more than $900 billion in grants and financial assistance for everything from food stamps and public housing to road construction and tax-credit programs that encourage economic development in low-income communities, according to Reamer’s research.
For details, check out the reports and PowerPoint presentation slides Reamer has created for the project he oversees at George Washington University, called Counting for Dollars 2020. One report, released in May 2019, offers a state-by-state look at the money distributed by the 55 largest federal programs in fiscal year 2016, based on data derived from the 2010 census.
- Help the public understand that census results are confidential. Federal law prevents the Census Bureau from sharing identifying information.
Census Bureau officials are required to keep all personally-identifiable information confidential until 72 years after it was collected for the decennial census. The bureau cannot share the information with any person or agency, including other federal government agencies. It can only use what people share via their census forms for statistical purposes, Thompson says.
“Some reporters don’t really understand that the census will not give data to anyone,” he says. “Not the FBI. Not the ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. Not any law enforcement authority. Nobody will get the data.”
After 72 years, the National Archives and Records Administration makes those records public.
- Stop trying to estimate how much federal funding a state loses for each individual person missed by the census. It’s extremely complicated, and there’s not a way to tell the whole story with one number.
“What I tell journalists,” Reamer says, “is you cannot come up with a number that for every person you miss, this is what it’s going to cost you. A lot of [federal] programs are not sensitive to a miscount. For the programs that are sensitive to a miscount — for example, Title I for education … it depends on the cities’ and states’ count of children ages 5 to 17 who are poor. If the census misses 10,000 65-year-olds, it doesn’t affect funding for poor children because it’s the wrong age group. I try to get them to understand that it’s not only how many you miss, but who you miss.”
- Explain to audiences that the consequences of an inaccurate census count reach far beyond changes in political representation and federal funding.
When journalists cover the census, they tend to focus on how a miscount might hurt communities in terms of losing federal funding and seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, apportioned based on state population. “Journalists don’t fully appreciate all the ways the country relies on an accurate census,” Reamer says. “The journalists tend to want to focus on the glittery bauble and will tend to miss the broader and deeper [implications]. Federal spending is important, but a small part of the economy.”
He and Thompson say the impact is far greater, potentially affecting nearly every aspect of life in the U.S. Two important areas that don’t get much attention from newsrooms: economic development and academic research.
Businesses use census-derived to make decisions about whether and how to invest in a community, including where to open stores and which kinds of goods and services to offer, Reamer says. “The widespread use of data derived from the decennial census by businesses and nonprofit organizations, workers and students, and federal, state and local governments has a substantial positive effect on the vitality of the U.S. economy and the nation’s 6 million private firms,” Reamer testified during a congressional hearing in May.
Employers use census-derived data to glean information about the workforce in different parts of the country. “A factory may use data on education and training to make decisions about whether to open a new location in a certain area,” Thompson says.
Not only do researchers use information collected by the census as a part of their work — for example, to help explain trends — but they also use it to generate nationally representative samples. Policymakers and federal program administrators depend on nationally representative surveys to help them make decisions.
- Get acquainted with census coverage measurement, or CCM, efforts.
After each decennial census, the Census Bureau goes to great lengths to measure the accuracy of the count as a whole and for subgroups such as black people, children, and people who rent their homes, all of whom have been undercounted in the past. This information helps the federal government gauge the effectiveness of the census and make future improvements. Reamer says it’s a great resource for journalists wanting a “look under the hood” for prior censuses. They should ask for the results of a survey called the Census Coverage Measurement (CCM), previously known as the Accuracy and Coverage Evaluation or the Post-Enumeration Survey.
The Census Bureau released its CCM report on the 2010 census in 2012, calling it “an outstanding census” because it had a net overcount of 0.01%, which was found to be statistically indistinguishable from zero. However, many subgroups were undercounted. For example, the 2010 census undercounted 2.1% of the black population and 4.9% of Native Americans and Alaska Natives living on reservations, the report states. The census overcounted non-Hispanic, white people by 0.8%.
- Watch for a range of problems that could arise before, during and after the census.
While the possibility of adding a citizenship question has dominated news about the 2020 census, Thompson says plenty of issues can discourage residents from participating. “Right now, the big gorilla in the room is the citizenship question and [questions such as] ‘Is the census going to be delayed? Are they going to delay the printing [of forms]?’” he says. “That’s a big deal. But looking ahead, there are other potential issues they [journalists] should be aware of.”
Thompson suggests journalists keep an eye out for these:
- Problems recruiting part-time census workers: The Census Bureau might have great difficulty hiring enough people to help track down residents to collect their information. “The economy is really good right now, so they’re going to have to find a way to get people to take this as a second job,” Thompson says. “In a good economy, it’s going to be hard to recruit a lot of temporary workers. If the economy stays as good as it is, it’s going to make it hard for them.”
- Disinformation campaigns: “There is a good chance there will be a disinformation campaign similar to the 2016 election, but aimed at decreasing participation in the 2020 census,” Thompson says.
- Technological breakdowns: In 2020, residents will be able to complete their census surveys online. Also, census workers will, for the first time, use smartphones and tablets to collect information. Thompson says the Census Bureau probably won’t know for certain whether issues exist until residents go online to self-respond, or fill out forms on their own. “There are going to be some issues that could come up,” he says. “They are going to start doing a huge amount of self-response over the internet and, hopefully, that will work. Hopefully, that won’t be a big issue. But if it is, that’s something they [journalists] will want to report on.”
Looking for research on the U.S. census? We’ve summarized research on how undercounts and overcounts can harm U.S. communities and how adding a citizenship question would depress participation in the 2020 census.