Letting the Government Know That You Exist

I had an exciting moment a couple of weeks ago.  I walked home from work (ah, those pre-COVID days), opened the mailbox, and …

…The 2020 Census had arrived!

Now granted, I may find such things a little more exciting than average, because I’ve worked extensively with census data over the years and I’m acutely aware of the value of census data.  But you should also be excited, because this is where you let the government know that you exist, and as Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up”.

How It’s Done

My census form, and yours as well, arrived not in form of a written questionnaire, but rather in a notification.  The U.S. Bureau of the Census is using a “push to web” format now as the main data collection method, where we receive a link and a unique identification number, and we fill out the form online.  It’s quick and easy.  If you’re Internet-phobic, you can also call and conduct the census by telephone, and if you don’t do either the online or telephone versions, you’ll get a hard-copy form in the mail.  And then if you don’t do that, you’ll likely get a personal visit.

The interesting thing about that process is that it’s to some extent a reversed history of how the census has been conducted in the past.  The longer you dawdle on participating, the further back in time the methodology will go to gain your participation.  Just for fun, let’s swirl back through the mists of time and see how our ancestors received their census forms.

1790 through 1820 – The Law Showed Up at Your Door

In the earliest days of the census, the duty fell upon U.S. Marshalls.  Each was given a list of questions, and they showed up at your house to ask them.  By law, they (or an assistant) were required to visit every household in their jurisdiction, but this was based on their knowledge of the area and where the homes were.

1830 through 1870 – The Law Showed Up with a Form

Prior to 1830, the U.S. Marshalls were given a list of questions, and it was up to them how they asked the questions and reported the data.  In 1830, a standard form was distributed across the country.  So this time when the law showed up on your doorstep, you got asked the same questions that people in Georgia or Philadelphia or Schenectady did.  This opened the door for data analysis to be done on a centralized level, whereas earlier censuses had been tabulated locally and the results passed up.

1880 – A Trained Person Showed Up with a Form

Beginning with the 1880 census, law enforcement was excused from census taking duties, and instead a trained “census enumerator” showed up at your door.  However, just as it was earlier (and as it is today), that enumerator had the power of the law behind them, as census participation is mandatory.

1890 – 1930 – A Trained Person Showed Up With a Form, and They Were in the Right Place

In the 1890 census, enumerators received maps with assigned areas and addresses.  Prior to this, the census takers were relied upon to identify and visit every household in their jurisdiction, and not accidentally overstepping any boundaries or skipping areas within their boundaries.

(1910 Exception) – That Trained Person May Have Shown Up Twice

During the 1910 census, a two-phase process was undertaken in larger cities, where enumerators dropped off census forms a day or two in advance, and then came back   (This was not done in rural areas, which still received the initial visit.)  However, the dropoff-pickup process was not deemed successful and was not attempted again.

1940 – That Trained Person Showed Up with Two Different Forms

In the 1940 census, statistical sampling was introduced.  This allowed the census to develop a much longer questionnaire that went to a sampling of households, while allowing most households to complete the “short form”.  The result was the ability to efficiently gather much more data about the population.  So when the census enumerator knocked on your door, he or she might give you a short questionnaire or a long one.

1950 – Data Collection was No Longer Linked Exclusively to Housing

The 1950 census saw no major data collection changes for most people, but it included an important first.  In this census, efforts were begun to count people who were not living in traditional housing, with efforts to conduct surveys in places like transient hotels and on the streets.

1960 – Mail!  (In Part)

In 1960, we were still three years away from the invention of ZIP Codes, which would make mail delivery far more efficient.  But the U.S. Bureau of the Census was running on the leading edge of that trend, and determined that mailing the census forms could improve the process. 

However, it was a one-way pipeline.  They mailed the surveys out to households, but the forms were not designed to be mailed back.  An enumerator still came to your house to pick it up.  And if you were lucky, the enumerator left a “long version” with you that you then mailed back, contrary to the previous precedent.

And of course, if you didn’t complete the form, you could still expect an in-person visit from the trained enumerator, a last-resort backup that still exists today.

1970 – Mail Round Trip for Some, and No Just in English Any More

1970 saw perhaps the greatest changes in the history of the census to that date.  The mail out tests of 1960 were expanded (in large cities) to a full round trip.  Forms were not just mailed out to households, but the households returned them by mail, negating the need for a personal visit.  (Of course, if you didn’t return it you would still get a personal visit.)

Further, the forms became more inclusive, with Spanish versions being sent to geographic areas that had high concentrations of Hispanic people (which presumably was based on the previous census?)

1980-1990 – All Mail, All the Time, and More Inclusiveness

By 1980, the concept of gathering the data by mail was proven, so the mail-out, mail-back system was put into place for everyone.  The only reason an enumerator would come to your house is if you didn’t send the form in. 

Of course, this system didn’t work for homeless populations, so special nights were allocated to on-site data collection in areas where populations did not live in traditional housing.  These were known as “T” night (transient housing) and “M” night (missions and other areas where homeless populations tended to gather).  In 1990, “S” night was conducted to count people in shelters or on the streets.

2000-2010 – The Rise of the Internet…and Phone…and Multilingual Responses

The Internet was still a new and growing phenomenon in 2000, but the U.S. Bureau of the Census adopted it quickly.  The millennial saw the first opportunities to complete census forms online and also offered a telephone assistance line in six languages:  English, Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Korean.  (Tagalog was replaced with Russian in the 2010 census.)

The bulk of the data collection was still done by mail, though, with forms being sent in the same six languages above.  (Non-English forms were requested by responding to a pre-census notification mailing and requesting one of the non-English language forms.)  Language Assistance guides were also provided in 49 languages in 2000, rising to 59 in 2010.

2020 – The Rise of the Internet…and Phone…and Multilingual responses

The primary change in 2020 is the use of the “push to web” mode before sending any printed forms.  The “push to web” provides notification of the census along with a unique identifier to access the online census form.

In lieu of the online response, a household can also complete the survey by phone in any of 14 language or TDD, or a household can request a written form to complete.

Printed forms are sent to three groups:  proactively to people in geographic areas that traditionally have a low response rate, and reactively to any households that don’t respond to the push to web notification, or any household that specifically requests a written form.  As has always been the case, followup visits may be made by trained enumerators to households that don’t respond to online or print entreaties. 

Language Assistance guides were also provided in 60 languages, plus a large print and braille version.

So What Does This All Mean?

If we look at the history of census data collection, we see three major trends:

  • A push toward coverage during the first 150 years.  
  • A push toward efficiency in the last 70 years.
  • A push toward representation (and coverage) over the last 50 years.

In the early days of the country, there was little infrastructure for data collection and analysis, so it was all done face to face.  The improvements in data collection centered on making sure that as many people as possible were counted, and that the data collection process was consistent.

Beginning with the 1940 census, new technologies and techniques changed the game.  The development of statistical sampling techniques made the actual completion of the forms more efficient (in aggregate), and improvements in mail delivery and the mass democratization of telephones opened up ways to gather data that were far cheaper than door to door visits.  As the internet rose, another even more cost-effective approach opened up.

Finally, the efforts at coverage began evolving and searching for more niches.  As opposed to the early days of the census when coverage meant physically covering the geography of the United States, efforts in the latter half of the 20th century began focusing on coverage from a demographic and linguistic standpoint, capturing populations that might face additional changes in completing an English-only, home-visit system.

So what’s next?  How do we increase the cost-effectiveness of a system that now consists of a mere online form?  Will we perhaps see a day when the census is not conducted fresh every decade, but rather is purchased from “big data” aggregators?  Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution mandates that a decennial census be done, but it only says that …

“The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”

This offers some latitude in the actual methods of collection.

Assuming that the enumeration continues, though, we’ll see more and more effort to ensure that the census is easy and convenient for everyone.  As America’s melting pot becomes more and more diverse, it is likely that we’ll see census forms produced in more languages, particularly in a world where printed forms are decreasingly necessary.  The U.S. Bureau of the Census reports that there are at least 350 languages spoken in the United States, so we’ll likely see all of them represented in the long run.  https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2015/cb15-185.html.  That will be further combined with increased efforts to capture populations in non-traditional housing. 

All images courtesy of Smithsonian Open Access, CC0 classifications