May 11, 2011

The 2020 Census—Not Too Soon to Think About It

As numbers continue to pour out of the 2010 Census, the National Research Council recently made a number of recommendations about how to improve the next national count, in 2020. The council’s Panel to Review the 2010 Census has issued an interim report that recommends “the Census Bureau take an assertive, aggressive approach to 2020 planning rather than casting possibilities purely as hypothetical.”

The report urges the bureau to focus on four priority areas—re-engineering the census field data collection operation; providing multiple ways for people to fill out their forms, including online; exploring the complicated issue of using government records and other databases to improve census-taking; and continually updating its geographic databases rather than doing that only once a decade.

The Census Bureau already has established a planning unit for the 2020 Census and has begun discussing its thinking in congressional testimony and at professional meetings and seminars, including a forum held recently at the Population Reference Bureau (see slides 26-61 for the 2020 portion of the presentation). Bureau officials repeatedly emphasize they intend to lower the per-household cost of taking the census (one of the recommendations in the National Research Council report). They hope to use the American Community Survey as the test-bed for innovative ways to collect data. They say there will be an online option for filling out census forms, and they may even contact people initially by email.

The National Research Council report and Census Bureau officials both raise the issue of tradeoffs between containing costs and providing high-quality results. The National Research Council report strikes a potentially optimistic tone: “We think that the research directions we suggest in this report are capable of achieving significant streamlining of effort and per-capita household cost reductions without tipping the balance to higher levels of census error.”