How are People Counted in the Census?

How and who is counted can be complicated. Here’s how we can help ensure a more accurate count.

by Raima Roy

While April 1 is Census Day, planning and preparation for the census begins much earlier. The decennial census enumeration process is unbelievably extensive and intricate, where the count starts several months before the official April 1st date and doesn’t cease until the end of July 2020.

Who exactly is counted in the census? According to the U.S. Constitution, all persons living in the United States regardless of their legal status must be counted. With regard to where people are counted, it depends on a person’s living situation. The rule of thumb is that a person is counted in their “usual place of residence” or where they live and sleep most of the time. But what about people who do not have a usual place of residence, such as college students or those who are homeless?

This table breaks down the more complicated count questions:

Major Operations Phases

Self-Response Phase

Non-Response Follow Up

The second phase of the count includes counting people who did not self-respond to the census. Door-to-door visits span from May 13 to the end of July. Vacant units will receive just one more postcard before they are removed using administrative records. Occupied households will receive at least one visit from a census taker. If they receive no answer, they will leave a “notice of visit” with an online response code and a follow up postcard a week later if there is no response. Census takers will continue to visit (or call) up to six times. After the third try, enumerators can ask a nearby reliable “proxy” for information such as a landlord, neighbor, letter carrier or utility worker. After the sixth unsuccessful attempt, the Census Bureau uses statistical substituted values (imputation) to fill in missing data for the entire household.

Measuring Progress of Census Count

The Census Bureau constantly tracks the number of people counted throughout the entire data collection process. They monitor the percent of housing units (not people) that responded online, on the phone, or through the paper form during the initial self-response period. This percentage, also known as the self-response rate, is reported for states and localities and tracked by the Census Bureau on a weekly basis.

When the Census Bureau ceases field work, the participation rate — the percent of occupied housing units that self-responded — is calculated. The non-response follow-up progress is reported on a weekly basis and tracks the total number of housing units counted in each area.

The Undercount of Young Children

Why is the Census Important for Children?

The census is crucial for the allocation of over $800 billion in federal funding. Eight out of the 16 largest programs focus on children, with Medicaid and SNAP (also called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) receiving a large chunk of this funding. When young children are missed, there is less money being allocated to programs that assist children each year, for an entire decade.

Data on the Undercount of Young Children

Young children from ages 0 to 4 years had the highest net undercount by far than any other age group or demographic group on the 2010 census, with Hispanic and black young children having the highest undercount rate. On the other hand, teenagers from ages 13 to 17 were overcounted in the 2010 census. Net undercounts for children from 0 to 4 years were higher in larger counties.

Since 1980, the net undercount of young children in the census has worsened while the coverage of adults has improved.

Why are Young Children Missed in the Census?

Several factors contribute to the undercount of young children. One reason is that young children are more concentrated in hard-to-count situations than older children. This means many young children live in places such as rental housing units, with a single parent, in their grandparents’ home, or in a different address than the year before.

Some young children are missed because they are left off a returned census questionnaire and some are missed because their whole household is missed.

Children other than biological or adopted children are more likely to be missed because they are living with a relative that is not their parent, because they are not related to the person with whom they are living, or because they are a foster child.

Another reason is that some respondents don’t think the Census Bureau wants to include young children in their count. A study by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials found that 15 percent of respondents believed the Census didn’t include the count for young children.

In addition, some respondents do not report their children to the government because they might not trust the government. With the addition of the citizenship question to the census , this trend may increase as 1.8 million young children are living with at least one undocumented parent.

It is vital for advocates to ensure that children are accurately represented in the census. There are many ways to do this, including joining a census count committee in your state/locality or by becoming a Census Partner and advocating with Congress on behalf of young children.

Together, we can help ensure a more accurate count for children, military, homeless, college students, and more by understanding how they are counted and where they should be counted. Ensuring that everyone counts, and everyone is counted is the only way to get the resources and support needed for the next decade and onward.

This blog is recap of an edition of our webinar series. View the webinar here.

Raima Roy is the program associate for census and civic engagement at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.