STANDARD DEVIATIONS: Improving the 2020 Census’ Group Quarters Count, Improving the Census Bureau’s Relationships with Local Governments

By Cara Brumfield and Allison Plyer

Standard Deviations blog posts represent the views of the author/organization, but not necessarily those of the Census Project.

Counting people in group homes, college dorms, and prisons is always a challenging task for the U.S. decennial Census, and when the COVID pandemic shut down access to those facilities in March 2020, it got even harder.

To correct any mistakes in the 2020 Census counts of people living in group quarters the Census Bureau announced the Post-Census Group Quarters Review (PCGQR). This is a unique, one-time, expanded opportunity to submit official data that would change the census base count for group quarters. In early June, the bureau sent letters to 40,000 chief elected officials of local, county, tribal and state governments inviting them to participate in PCGQR – many of these letters were then likely passed along to planning departments.

This new program is an opportunity to fix a specific issue and our advice to officials is: Take the Census Bureau up on this offer. Fixing your group quarters counts can increase your annual population estimates from now until 2030, and your population estimates will determine your portion of the $1.5 trillion that the federal government distributes to states and localities every year.

Review the Group Quarters counts in your town, county, tribal area or state. If something seems amiss, your government can participate in the PCGQR program by providing records showing the population of group quarters facilities that were miscounted or missed entirely.

For more detail on how to do this, the Census Quality Reinforcement Task Force is holding a webinar on July 6th at noon ET (register at this link).

Properly implemented, this initiative can address some undercounts in the 2020 Census. We also like it as a step toward a closer relationship between the Census Bureau and local governments because group quarters are of course not the only issue with the 2020 Census. We hear the bureau is looking to offer more technical support to local governments concerned about their 2020 count and annual estimates. This would be another very positive step – because sharing local knowledge and state datasets can yield better statistics.

The 2020 Census had other challenges:  Longstanding undercounts of people of color persisted and in some cases worsened in the 2020 Census and 14 states were under- or overcounted, according to the Post-Enumeration Survey, which does not include group quarters. (Note: no state was miscounted back in 2010). The Census Bureau can and should improve its yearly Population Estimates, to rightsize the flow of $1.5 trillion in federal spending annually.

We recently spent time with former Census Bureau Director James F. Holmes, a longtime census executive (and current Census Project board member). He talked about the close cooperation between local electeds, local planning agencies and the Census Bureau in the 1970s and 80s. “That wasn’t an every 10 years thing, those were ongoing relationships,” he told us. “They helped with the Population Estimates every year and all the other surveys.”

As the Census Bureau plans for a better count of our increasingly diverse, nation beset by social distrust, Director Robert Santos’ leadership and openness to partnering with local governments in PCGQR and improving the Population Estimates, is a commendable strength to build on.

– Cara Brumfield and Allison Plyer are co-chairs of the Census Quality Reinforcement Task Force. Brumfield is associate director of the Economic Security and Opportunity Initiative of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. Plyer is chief demographer of The Data Center in New Orleans, and immediate past chair of the Census Scientific Advisory Committee.