Most U.S. adults — more than eight in 10 — intend to fill out their census forms next year, according to a Pew Research Center survey published Friday, good news for states and local communities that rely on population counts for federal funding and political power but short of the universal participation that many of them have made their goal.
Fewer people end up responding to the census than say they will, according to U.S. Census Bureau research. During the 2010 Census, 74% of households mailed back their completed questionnaires, according to the bureau.
“It’s striking that nearly everyone has heard of the census and that 8 in 10 adults say they definitely or probably will participate," said D’Vera Cohn, a senior writer at Pew Research Center and co-author of the survey report.
But cities such as Philadelphia are focusing on how to encourage those who don’t plan to respond to the census, said Stephanie Reid, executive director of Philly Counts 2020, a city effort to ensure all residents are counted.
Young people, black and Hispanic adults, and people with family incomes under $30,000 are least likely to consider censuses important and to say they plan to participate in the 2020 Census, according to the Pew survey. These groups are among those historically undercounted.
As in previous census counts, the 2020 Census will determine the distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds to local and state governments, the boundaries of voting districts, and each state’s number of seats in the U.S. House. States and local communities across the country, including Philadelphia, have been working to educate residents about the census and why they should participate.
The Census Bureau wants residents to respond to census questionnaires themselves in March and April online, by mail or by phone instead of waiting for a census taker to show up at their doors. In-person follow-ups are more expensive for the bureau and are less accurate, because census takers resort to asking neighbors or guessing if they ultimately can’t reach residents at their homes.
The 2020 Census became the focus of much news coverage during the 15 months after the Trump administration announced in March 2018 it would add a citizenship question to the questionnaire. States and cities sued, the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily blocked the question in June, and the Trump administration decided to drop the question in favor of using administrative records to determine the citizen and noncitizen breakdown of the U.S. population.
According to Pew’s latest survey, which asked questions of a nationally representative sample of 6,878 adults in English and Spanish last month, most adults — 94% — consider the decennial census “very” or “somewhat” important.
Based on census efforts throughout Philadelphia, "we find a lot of people need more information about” the population count, Reid said. "Once people have the basic information, I’m not at all surprised by 94%.”
About half of people surveyed said the census will benefit their community and about half said the census will neither benefit nor hurt their community. About 3% said the census will harm their community, and 4% of Hispanic adults, 3% of black adults, and 1% of white adults said the census would hurt them personally.
Persuading residents who consider responding to the census to be a personal risk is "where our work comes in,” Reid said. For example, the city has now trained nearly 3,000 people as “Census Champions,” tasked with spreading accurate information about the 2020 count and answering their neighbors’ questions.
The perceived importance of the census did not depend on a person’s political party affiliation, Pew found, but Democrats were slightly more likely than Republicans to say responding to the census would benefit them or their community.
Young people aged 18 to 29 were the least likely age group to say they would participate in the census, with 34% saying they “might or might not” or “probably will not” or “definitely will not” respond. The group includes college students, who can be difficult to count and often incorrectly assume they should be included on their parents’ forms. People 65 or older are the most likely to participate, with 97% saying they “definitely” or “probably” will.