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Census 2020: Current Response Rates and the Risk of an Undercount

Census 2020: Current Response Rates and the Risk of an Undercount

By Deborah Kennedy, president, National Coalition for Literacy, and
Mary Margaret Kraut, affiliated faculty, Union Institute and University

Here’s the good news: As of yesterday morning, the national self-response rate for the Census was 53.4 percent. According to the Census Bureau’s Self-Response Rankings website, the rate is above 60 percent in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. Los Alamos County in New Mexico has the highest rate of response by county at 73.8 percent, and North River, North Dakota has the highest rate of response by city at 100 percent.

These numbers are encouraging, but the data also shows some troubling trends. Table 1 provides comparative data on total response rates, including online, by phone, and on paper, for the Census tracts with the highest (top 20%) and lowest (bottom 20%) rates of self-response. [Note that the table specifies “population” or “household” to reflect the way the Census Bureau reports the data.] As the table indicates, the tracts in the bottom 20% contain substantially higher proportions of hard-to-count populations, including minorities, non-native English speakers, those living below the federal poverty line, and those with no household internet access, than the tracts with the highest response rates. The risk of an undercount for these populations is evident in the data.

The data in Table 1 represents the majority (95.45%) of households: those that have received Internet First and Internet Choice mailings. These two contact strategies take place where mail is delivered to the physical location of the housing unit.

  • In the Internet First contact strategy, a household receives a letter asking the respondent to go online to complete the Census.
  • In the Internet Choice strategy, a household receives a paper questionnaire along with the invitation letter; the Census Bureau uses this strategy in areas that it considers less likely to respond online.
  • In tracts where the Bureau recognizes at least 20% of households as needing “Spanish assistance,” Internet First and Internet Choice mailings are bilingual (Spanish and English).

To date, response rates for Internet Choice tracts are not as robust as those for Internet First tracts. As of April 23, the average response rate for Internet First tracts was about 4 points above the overall national rate, whereas the average response rate for Internet Choice tracts was about 6 points below the overall national rate. Table 2 provides a demographic comparison of the two types of tracts. The comparison shows the relatively higher proportion of hard-to-count populations in the Internet Choice tracts and demonstrates the risk of an undercount for these populations.

To gather information from households that have not responded, the Census Bureau conducts the Non-Response Follow-Up Operation (NRFU), in which Census enumerators visit households in person. Census Outreach [] summarizes the NRFU process this way:

  • If no one answers when an enumerator visits a household, a “Notice of Visit” will be left at the door. This notice will include an online response code to encourage households to self-respond.
  • After one unsuccessful attempt to contact a household, the Census Bureau will determine if the household can be counted using high quality federal administrative records. Households that do not meet this standard will receive additional visits from enumerators.
  • After the 3rd unsuccessful attempt, enumerators can ask nearby reliable “proxy” (for example, a landlord, neighbor, caregiver, letter carrier, or on-site utility worker) for details about the household. If there is no proxy available, enumerators will continue to visit the household up to 6 times.
  • After the 6th unsuccessful attempt, some special case households will still be eligible for additional visits through the end of October.

The 2020 Census Self-Response Operation will continue until October 31, 2020, and the Census Bureau now plans to conduct NRFU from August 11 through October 31 (these dates have been recently adjusted, and may change again depending on COVID-19 developments). The uncertainties associated with face-to-face interviews, particularly in the context of COVID-19 concerns and restrictions, make self-response a far more reliable way to ensure that all people are counted.

The hard-to-count populations that are at risk of being omitted from the Census count have substantial overlap with those who participate in, or could benefit from, adult education. These adults need to recognize the relationship between their participation in the 2020 Census and the availability of equitable federal funding for schools, roads, public assistance, and health services for themselves and their children. Such funding can give adult learners the opportunity for literacy instruction, classes to obtain a high school equivalency or diploma, English for non-native speaker classes, or community college courses to obtain a certificate required for employment. The commonality across all of these programs is for the community to receive its fair share of federal funds.

Adult education practitioners are well connected with the communities where hard-to-count populations reside, and as trusted community resources they can be influential. The challenge for them is to reach out actively to their adult learners in all Census tracts and use that influence to ensure that every individual is included in the 2020 Census count. 



To see current response rates and rankings, see the Rankings Dashboard

To see current response rates by state, county, and Census tract, see the Response Rates Map and the Census 2020 Hard to Count Map

For information on Internet First and Internet Choice contact strategies by state and Census tract, see the Census Bureau’s Mail Contact Strategies Viewer

Census 2020 Schedule Changes Due to COVID-19

Census 2020 Schedule Changes Due to COVID-19

On Friday March 20, the Census Bureau announced adjustments to the operations schedule for collecting 2020 Census responses. Here are several that are important for adult learners and their communities.

The best approach for everyone is to complete the Census as soon as possible, either online, on the phone, or by mail. People who have not received a Census ID number in the mail can complete the form online using their home address.

  • Self-response phase: The end date for self-response is extended to August 14. The original end date was July 31.
  • Update Leave: This refers to 5 million households where Census workers will drop off paper invitations at the front door. This was scheduled to begin on March 15. It has been delayed and will now take place March 29-May 1.
  • Mobile Questionnaire Assistance: In this activity, Census workers with tablets will be stationed in public places (grocery stores, community centers) to help people complete the Census. This activity was originally scheduled for March 30 – July 31. It will now take place April 13 – August 14.
  • Non-response Followup: These in-person visits to households that have not responded online, by phone, or by mail were originally scheduled for May 13 – July 31. The new dates are May 28 – August 14.

Group quarters enumeration, service-based numeration, and the count of people experiencing homelessness outdoors have also been delayed. Read the Census Bureau’s revised schedule for more information.

The Census Task Force of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has expressed support for these schedule adjustments, noting that “this extension gives the Census Bureau and advocates the flexibility we need to expand and modify outreach.” The National Coalition for Literacy is a Census Task Force partner. Read the Task Force’s full statement.

How will the coronavirus affect the Census?

How will the coronavirus affect the Census?

Concerns about COVID-19 (the illness caused by the new coronavirus) are increasing as the number of cases grows across the United States, and many people are wondering whether this public health crisis will have an effect on the Census count.

Fortunately, the 2020 Census is set up in a way that allows everyone to participate without fear of exposure to the virus. When the invitation to participate comes in the mail, it will include instructions for responding online, by phone, and by mail. As the Census Bureau says,

It has never been easier to respond on your own, whether online, over the phone or by mail—all without having to meet a census taker.

You will be able to respond either online or by phone in English and 12 other languages. If you respond right away, no Census taker will visit you.

The Census Bureau’s most recent statement, released on March 11, outlines the plan for in-person followup:

Census takers plan to conduct the Nonresponse Followup operation in a handful of communities beginning as early as April 9, and across the country on May 13. Households can still respond on their own during this phase (online and phone response is available through July 31).

The Census Bureau will closely follow guidance from public health authorities when conducting this operation, as we do when conducting all field operations. 

If we need to delay or discontinue nonresponse follow-up visits in a particular community, we will adapt our operation to ensure we get a complete and accurate count. 

The safest and easiest strategy, then, is to respond online or by phone as soon as you receive the invitation in the mail.

How do I know that an ad or mailing is really from the Census Bureau?

How do I know that an ad or mailing is really from the Census Bureau?

You pick up your mail and see an envelope or postcard that says “Census” on it. Or you’re scrolling through your Facebook feed and see an ad that says “Census.” How can you tell that it’s really about the 2020 Census?

Organizations that are not part of the Census Bureau might use the word “Census” on ads and mailings to try to get your attention or trick you. Don’t fall for it! Here are some tips from the Census Bureau:

If you receive a survey or a letter in the mail from the Census Bureau, the envelope contains information that will help you verify its legitimacy. For example:
“U.S. Census Bureau” in the return address, or “U.S. Department of Commerce,” which is the Census Bureau’s parent agency.
Jeffersonville, IN in the return address. The Census Bureau has a mail processing center located there.

Households will receive an invitation in the mail to complete the 2020 Census online, by phone, or by mail. The enclosed envelope to mail back a completed paper questionnaire will be addressed to Jeffersonville, IN, or Phoenix, AZ.

The Census Bureau specifically asks organizations and businesses not to use words or images that might confuse people. Here is the Bureau’s request letter.

An example: You may have heard that Facebook decided yesterday to remove some presidential campaign ads. The ads were considered misleading because they used the word “Census.” Here are some news reports on what happened:

New York Times article
Reuters article
Associated Press article
Bloomberg News article

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