Percentage of all households that self-responded to the 2020 census (by internet, paper questionnaire or telephone). The 2023 County Health Rankings used data from 2020 for this measure.
Census participation influences the distribution of power through government representation, allocation of federal, state and local resources, and public health planning and surveillance.1 For example, census results are used to draw state congressional districts. These districts last ten years and determine the areas from which representatives are elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.2 The census is also used to determine the distribution of billions of federal dollars for infrastructure and community health programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and Head Start.3,4 Groups working to advance equity have also used census data to promote legislation, including the 1965 Voting Rights Act.5
The census is critical for public health. The census provides a basis for the socioeconomic indicators used to monitor disparities – including formal categories for counting and sorting by race, ethnicity, household income and poverty. Public health planning systems use population counts for natural disaster response, to provide safety net services and to monitor and reduce social disparities.3
Past and present discriminatory policies and practices can reduce households’ trust in the government and increase uncertainty that census responses will be used to benefit their community.6 The first U.S. census took place in 1790. The constitution’s three-fifths rule partially counted enslaved people toward congressional representation. Because the federal government did not grant enslaved people voting rights, the rule distributed additional power to reinforce the institution of chattel slavery.1,7 Indigenous people were not counted in the census until 1850, and then only inaccurately and incompletely.8 Historical distinctions and underrepresentation continue to impact certain marginalized groups, depriving these communities of equitable representation and access to resources including investments in schools, hospitals, roads, public works, and social support programs.9 Recent acts, such as the proposal to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census, have raised concerns about diminished participation among historically undercounted groups.9 Systematic undercounting of populations can generate or worsen inequities; restricting access to resources and representation in communities that may be already under-resourced and underrepresented. People more likely to be undercounted include young children, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants without documentation status, and highly mobile or unhoused people.10
Data and methods
Census Operational Quality Metrics
Following each decennial census, the Census Bureau releases metrics on data collection quality and the resulting population data. Quality metrics for the census describe collection of data for all addresses, housing units, occupied housing unit size, and preliminary non-response rates by demographics. No singular number can definitively quantify the quality of the census. Due to privacy concerns, some metrics are only offered at the state or national level.
Key Measure Methods
Census Participation is a percentage
Census Participation is the percentage of all households that self-responded to the 2020 census (by internet, paper questionnaire or telephone).
Where people are counted
People are normally counted at the place where they live and sleep most of the time. Sometimes it is difficult to determine someone’s primary place of residence, such as in the case of foreign citizens, military members, foster children, people who are in long-term health care facilities, people in educational housing like college dormitories, and people who live in correctional facilities. Census Residence Criteria are used to determine where people were counted during the 2020 census.
Census Participation cannot be compared across state lines
Census data collection strategies vary by geographic area. Data collection strategies may be targeted to specific populations who live in an area or to specific geographic characteristics of a region. As noted by the census, census participation should not be compared across state lines.
Not all households self-respond to the census. Some households were counted by interview with a census field worker, by using administrative records, or by proxy interviews with a landlord or neighbor. Our measure uses data only from self-responding households as this represents a level of census participation that can be influenced by local community actions such as educational campaigns to share important dates and processes and increase local awareness of the importance of the census. Read our “Finding More Data” section for more information on available census metrics.
The 2020 census was collected during the social and environmental challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, hurricanes, wildfires, civil unrest, and rising privacy concerns. The U.S. Census Bureau implemented a condensed data collection schedule for census staff and introduced a new option to fill out the census online. Some variation in census self-response rate is expected between geographies due to differences in collection methods.5
Census Participation should not be used to infer the quality of the census.10
The numerator is the total number of households that self-responded to the 2020 census by internet, paper questionnaire or telephone. This includes those who responded before the 2020 census concluded October 15, 2020.
The denominator is the total number of addresses on record with the 2020 census.
Can This Measure Be Used to Track Progress
Census Participation has limited ability to show change over time. Comparison with 2010 census data can show how well the 2020 census aligns with previous trends, a meaningful indicator of data quality, however changes such as the introduction of primarily online response and the challenge of operations during the COVID-19 pandemic also contributed to differences. Variations in census response and resulting data are expected between decades and geographies and should not necessarily be interpreted as “better” or “worse”. The next census will be completed in 2030.
For additional information, please visit the Census’ Operational Quality Metric FAQs.
Finding More Data
- 2020 Census Quality Metrics Viewer presents interactive maps of self-response, unresolved, internet response, internet within self-response, household interview, proxy interview, administrative record, and population count only responses for all counties in the U.S. Self-response data is not available below the county level.
- 2020 Post-Enumeration Survey (PES) showing population under- and overcounts by state and the District of Columbia
- Demographic Analysis (DA) produces national estimates of the population by age, sex, and race/ethnicity
- The 2020 census is the first census to be primarily accessed online. Our measure of Broadband Access can help you better understand Census Participation in your community
1 Krieger N. The US Census and the People’s Health: Public Health Engagement From Enslavement and “Indians Not Taxed” to Census Tracts and Health Equity (1790–2018). American Journal of Public Health. 2019; 109:1092-1100.
2 U.S. Census Bureau. About congressional districts. 2021. https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/geography/guidance/geo-areas/congressional-dist.html
3 Cohen GH, Ross CS, Cozier YC, Galea S. Census 2020-A Preventable Public Health Catastrophe. Am J Public Health. 2019;109(8):1077-1078.
4 National Institute for Children's Health Quality. Participate in the census, Promote Children's health. 2020. https://www.nichq.org/insight/participate-census-promote-childrens-health
5 Hochschild J, Powell B. Racial Reorganization and the United States Census 1850–1930: Mulattoes, Half-Breeds, Mixed Parentage, Hindoos, and the Mexican Race. Studies in American Political Development. 2008; 22(1): 59-96.
6 Vines M. 2020 Census Barriers, Attitudes, and Motivators Study (CBAMS) Survey and Focus Groups: Key Findings. US Census Bureau; 2018.
7 U.S. Const. art. I, § 2.
8 U.S. Census Bureau. Censuses of American Indians. 2022. https://www.census.gov/history/www/genealogy/decennial_census_records/censuses_of_american_indians.html#:~:text=1850%20and%201860%20Censuses%3A%20A,to%20tabulate%20American%20Indian%20populations.
9 Cohn D. Pew Research Center. What to know about the citizenship question the Census Bureau is planning to ask in 2020. 2018. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/30/what-to-know-about-the-citizenship-question-the-census-bureau-is-planning-to-ask-in-2020/
10 National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic, and Other Populations. Administrative Records, Internet, and Hard to Count Population Working Group Final Report. US Census Bureau; 2016.