New Report on 2020 Census/Rural America

In a new report issued this week, demographer Bill O’Hare says “little has been written about the special challenges that will make some rural areas and populations difficult to enumerate accurately.”

Dr. O’Hare’s report notes five particular regions or populations in rural America that will be particularly hard to count in the 2020 Census:

  • Blacks in the South
  • Hispanics in the rural Southwest
  • American Indians living on reservations and Alaska Natives
  • Residents of deep Appalachia
  • Migrant and seasonal farmworkers

O’Hare’s report says a majority of Hard-To-Count (HTC) counties (79 percent) in the U.S. are rural areas. Overall, 16 percent of all the most rural counties fall into the HTC category.

“The heavy reliance on the internet in the 2020 Census may pose a special concern for rural residents,” O’Hare concludes. “Data show that good internet access is less likely to be available in rural areas and a test (in West Virginia) that might reveal difficulties has recently been cancelled.”

Critical Census Budget Action Needed

The Continuing Resolution (CR) which froze both the overall federal budget and the Census Bureau budget at FY 2017 levels expires in early December. This could require another short-term CR if Congress can’t agree on a FY 2018 budget compromise. Or, Congress could immediately enact a final FY 2018 budget.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross have proposed an additional $187 million for the Census Bureau for FY 2018, to mostly pay for much-needed IT systems development. And, the administration now says it will request an additional $3.3 billion in lifecycle costs between now and the decennial count to pay for the full costs of the 2020 Census!

The Census Project believes the administration’s FY 2018 request for the 2020 Census is still too low. But, the project does support the additional funds that have been requested.

A letter from about 100 Census Project stakeholders to congressional policymakers describes the new administration funding request for FY 2018 as “an important down payment towards the additional $3.3 billion the administration says it needs over the next three years to conduct a fair, accurate and successful 2020 Census.”

“No funds are included in the revised FY 2018 Census Bureau budget for timely development of the full advertising campaign, launch of the Partnership Program, restoring cancelled field tests in rural areas, or to adapt operations to remedy the impact of disasters in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and California that increase the risk of an incomplete census count in those communities,” the letter continued. “The new request does not include sufficient funding for historic numbers of partnership specialists, who help state and local officials and trusted community leaders support census operations through focused outreach and promotion to their constituencies. These operations help reduce costs by boosting self-response and increase accuracy by targeting messages to historically hard-to-count communities. We strongly urge additional funding for these important activities in the final omnibus funding measure for Fiscal 2018.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney has introduced legislation (H.R. 4013) to provide the Census Bureau with $1.9 billion in FY 2018 — an increase of $251 million above the administration’s adjusted request, or $438 million more funding this fiscal year.

Congress is now at a critical crossroad in terms of funding the 2020 Census.

Getting Out the Hard-to-Count

There are no census undercount estimates for census tracts or neighborhoods. Mail return rates are often used as a proxy for the risk of being missed in the census. Based on poor mail return rates, the Census Bureau labels some areas as Hard-To-Count (HTC). As might be expected, HTC tracts are mostly found in communities of color and rural areas.

A recent point-and-click U.S. chart prepared by CUNY shows where the HTC areas are located.

Former Census Bureau Director John Thompson says he believes partnership specialists, working with community organizations, churches, local businesses, etc., and employed by the Census Bureau in HTC areas, helped reduce the undercount in the last census.

However, partnership specialists need to be deployed several years in advance of the decennial census to establish local relationships. Former Director Thompson believes that 100-200 partnership specialists should already be employed at this point in the decennial planning cycle.

But, there is no money in the FY 2018 budget beyond the 40 specialists that have already been hired. And, even with the initial 40 hires, it is unclear if they are working in HTC areas.

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross stated in recent congressional testimony that the new 2020 Census budget was going to increase the number of partnership specialists from the 800 budgeted in 2010 to 1,000 for the 2020 Census.

The Census Project believes money should be appropriated by Congress as it considers the FY 2018 Census Bureau budget in early December for additional partnership specialists to target HTC areas.

Mapping the Hard-to-Count Populations in the 2020 Census

The mapping team at the Center for Urban Research of the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center (, 212-817-2033) developed an interactive map of hard-to-count districts for the 2020 Census. Here are some suggestions for using the map:

  • Search by Congressional district or state legislative district: You can zoom to any district in the country and the map will highlight the hard-to-count tracts within the district and show how much of the district’s population lives in hard-to-count neighborhoods.
  • Identify areas in your state or region where households are particularly at risk of being missed in the 2020 Census: The map shades by color the hardest-to-count tracts in the country, and you can click on any tract (or search by address) to find out important population info, such as:
    • How many households mailed back their census questionnaire in 2010 (therefore how much of the tract may require more costly in-person follow up by the Census Bureau in 2020); and
    • How much of the tract is populated by groups that are at risk of being undercounted, such as children under 5, households with poor Internet access, recent immigrants, and more.
  • Groups can enhance their educational campaigns around the Census Bureaus budget: When you search for a district (or click on the map), the website provides contact info for each congressional and state representative.  If groups reach out to these elected leaders, they can highlight the need to fairly and accurately count the district’s hard-to-count population in their message about budget needs for the 2020 Census.
  • Share the map on social media: You can create a permalink for any spot on the map that you can share on social media, in email campaigns, etc.  Here’s an example: this link displays New York’s 2nd Congressional district, where more than 40% of the district’s residents live in hard-to-count tracts.

The map was created with the help of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Humans Rights and with support from the democracy and civil engagement funding community.