How to Measure the Quality of the 2020 Census

A new task force report from the American Statistical Association (ASA) states that, with “the importance of the many ways in which census data are used, the American public needs to know whether census information presents an accurate picture of our nation’s population.” Since the Census Bureau’s current plans for quality assessment are “unknown,” and “the 99 percent completion rate by state publicly released to date is insufficient to measure quality,” the ASA “2020 Census Quality Indicators” report recommends detailed indicators to measures of quality, accuracy, and coverage of the 2020 Census.

The Census Bureau has aimed to get to 99 percent completion of enumeration in every state, but the ASA report explains that, “the percent of completed cases does not suffice to draw conclusions about data quality. For example, included in the tally of completed enumerations are households counted through a proxy response from a neighbor, including cases in which the proxy could provide no information beyond a guess of the number of individuals living in the household. In fact, meeting enumeration goals for a truncated deadline increases the likelihood of operational shortcuts that will jeopardize the quality of the count.”

Given the rushed census timeline and COVID-19, the ASA task force report recommended that the Census Bureau should make its usual quality assessment results from self-response and nonresponse follow-up “public at the census tract levels in order to ascertain the extent to which some areas may have been counted more accurately than others and determine the data’s fitness for various uses.” Thanks to increased automation, more indicators from the 2020 Census field operations will be available, such as the daily “processing and assignment of the NRFU cases.”

According to former U.S. Chief Statistician Nancy Potok, the discussed “indicators are an important first step in a discussion on data quality,” followed by the “expeditious application of them to the 2020 decennial data” by the White House, “along with transparent reporting of each quality indicator to lawmakers and the public.”

Once the recommended “quality indicators are published,” the ASA task force report suggests granting “[q]ualified external researchers… access to the data to help conduct the analyses,” continued assessment as more data becomes available, and building on 2020 Census lessons, with public input, in preparation for the 2030 Census.

Experts on the task force included Potok, the current ASA president, a former Census Bureau chief scientist, a former Census Bureau chief demographer, a former Census Bureau senior mathematical statistician, former members of Census Advisory Committees, three former Census Bureau directors, and a former president of the ASA.

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