A very early preview of some possibilities, which may or may not come to fruition.
Beyond the reports of undercounts and overcounts in population totals, there is another takeaway from the post-mortem of 2020 census data issued on Thursday: This could be the last census of its kind.
The next census will be taken in a nation where Amazon may have a better handle on where many people live than the Census Bureau itself. For some advocates of a more accurate count, the era in which census-takers knock on millions of doors to persuade people to fill out forms should give way in 2030 to a sleeker approach: data mining, surveys, sophisticated statistical projections and, if politics allows, even help from the nation’s tech giants and their endless petabytes of personal information.
The Census Bureau itself has yet to leap very far into that new era. But it has hinted recently at a “blended” approach in which official census figures could be supplemented with reliable data from government records and other sources.
It is an article of faith among data experts and the Census Bureau itself that data obtained directly from people are more reliable than secondhand or thirdhand data from other sources. And experts are wary that other data can raise privacy issues or allegations that it was cherry picked to fit an agenda.
The bureau itself considered tapping secondhand sources like state records to fine-tune its 2020 portraits of the population, but it often shied away unless it could find corroborating information elsewhere, according to Amy O’Hara, a former Census Bureau official who is now the executive director of the Federal Statistical Research Data Center at Georgetown University.
Professor O’Hara said the gusher of public and available data opens new avenues to a far more accurate census, but only if the numbers can be proven accurate and the Census Bureau can navigate the tricky boundary between tapping private research and issuing public statistics.
“There is no significant buy-in yet” to major changes in the census, Terri Ann Lowenthal, a longtime census expert and consultant to governments, businesses and other census “customers,” said in an email. “Too early without research, testing and transparency on those sorts of questions. And there probably will be even greater caution about using third-party commercial data.”
That said, she added, many users of census data agree that better use of outside records, conducted in a way that preserves privacy and credibility, could increase the accuracy of the head count and reduce its staggering cost — $14.2 billion, or about $117 per household counted in the 2020 census.
Mr. Prewitt and other experts say some solutions are obvious. For decades, the Census Bureau has undercounted some groups, including poorer residents and children, in part because they can be harder to find — they move more frequently, for example — and because census forms can be more confusing to people with less education or poorer language skills.
But state governments maintain accurate birth and death records and manage a range of federal programs aimed at the poor and children, such as Medicaid; the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC; and the SNAP program once known as food stamps. None shares data with the bureau, but an agreement to do so “could probably put a bigger dent in the problem than putting more enumerators on the street,” Mr. Jost said.
There are countless other ways to improve census results. Public and private utility records, for example, assiduously track which residences are occupied or vacant, potentially making it easier for the Census Bureau to compile a more complete and accurate list of households to survey.
Consider this to be a response to the issues raised here. One thing I hadn’t realized in reading this story is that the Census first mailed forms to households in 1960, and first did online forms in 2020, and yet the non-response rate has remained at about one third over the decades. That’s what the Census workers knocking on doors are there to deal with. Obstacles to this kind of data mining plan include the questions about accuracy as noted above, questions about legality considering the 1999 SCOTUS ruling, and of course the political blowback from the revanchist wingnuts who are perfectly happy to undercount communities of color. I fully expect we’ll still be having these fights in 2030, so we may as well know what they’re going to be about.