Well-understood as both a constitutional imperative undergirding representative democracy and the rare political flashpoint that rises above the news of the day, the decennial census is also a veritable fount of story ideas and engagement opportunities that will continue long after the forms are counted.
Ideas and Tools
To Decode the 2020 census
Online News Association, 2019
Senior writer/editor @allthingscensus
These slides are intended to be a basic tipsheet for covering the census. I probably
won’t cover all of them in my presentation. Have a look at the notes field for links and
September 13, 2019 2
Two things to know about the 2020 census:
1.Something will go wrong.
2.The census numbers will tell us
Looking back to 1990, the bureau had to go back to Congress for more money because
fewer households than projected sent back their census forms, and more people than
planned were hired to knock on doors. In 2000, the bureau had to tear up its original
plan (statistical sampling)mfor counting households that didn’t send back their forms
after the Supreme Court (at the behest of Republicans) ruled against it. In 2010, the
bureau had to scrap its plan for census-takers to use handheld devices because they did
not operate properly. This time? As far as surprises, in 2000 the numbers showed the
Latino population had grown more rapidly than forecast, and had overtaken African
Americans as the nation’s largest minority group. In 2010, the census numbers for
Hispanics also were higher than expected in most states (despite the fact that millions
of Hispanics were missed.)
Count everyone once, only once and in the right place
Counting begins in remote
Alaska: January 2020
Most people will respond in
First numbers (state
Detailed local data:
Beginning early 2021
September 13, 2019 3
For more: https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/decennial-census/2020-census.html
This is a high-level overview, which may duplicate material presented by others. The
2020 census is expected to count more than 330 million Americans in 140 million
September 13, 2019 4
What does the census form ask?
This is the first page of the paper questionnaire. It’s got a lot of instructions, to try to
make sure everyone in the home is counted (including those staying only temporarily).
It also gives instructions about people who should not be included, such as children
away at college, or people in the military, prisons, etc, because they are counted in
those places. The census has only one housing question, asking whether the home is
owned or rented.
Male or female? Age and birthdate?
September 13, 2019 5
No questions on SOGI (Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity); some federal agencies
had been interested in asking about those topics, but withdrew those requests after the
Trump administration took office. If you want to know more about this topic, look at
this federal working-group report:
are only six or seven data questions on the form (including how many people in the
household). The questionnaire asks for both birth date and age, with one double-
checking the other. Note the attention to babies. Children younger than five years old
are the age group most likely to be missed in the census. Here is a link to Census
Bureau research on the undercount of young children:
September 13, 2019 6
What is asked: Hispanic origin
(Questionnaire says: Please answer BOTH the question about Hispanic origin
and the question about race. For this census, Hispanic origins are not races.)
Separate questions asked about Hispanic origin, and race. The Census Bureau had
proposed combining them, but that did not happen. These numbers will reset what we
know about the growth and make-up of the Latino population.
September 13, 2019 7
What is asked: Race
One innovation this census is that people who check the white or black boxes will be
asked for more about their detailed origins. The examples given are the ones the
Census Bureau expects to be the largest response groups. In the “black or African
American” category, the word “Negro” – which was on the 2010 form – was dropped.
The “some other race” category could become the second largest one on the census
form in 2020, after “white.” That’s because it’s the one of the most common response
for Hispanics, many of whom don’t think they fit into the standard racial categories. The
Census Bureau looked into adding a new category – MENA, for people from the Middle
East and North Africa. That did not happen; the agency said it needed to do more
testing to answer – among other things – a question about whether MENA should be a
racial group or ethnicity.
September 13, 2019 8
What is asked: How are other people related to the person
who filled out the census form?
This question will help us know more about changes in the way people live and who
they live with. Person 1 is the person who fills out the census form. In the past, they’ve
been called “head of household” or “householder.” Everyone else in the household is
asked how they are related to this person. One innovation this census is the addition of
categories for “same-sex spouse” or “same-sex unmarried partner.” In the past, there’s
just been one box for spouse and one for unmarried partner, and the bureau has
figured out whether they were opposite-sex or same-sex from the gender responses.
The new category came out of research by the bureau showing that it had overcounted
the number of same-sex couples. See this for more info (but ignore the reference to the
citizenship question, which will not be asked): https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-
The checkboxes for this question change with the times: For 2020, the Census Bureau
will drop the “roomer or boarder” category, since it’s outdated.
• Hard-to-count groups are growing
• Online response and other technology
• Operational risks: Will everything work?
• Funding and politics
• Misinformation and disinformation
September 13, 2019 9
Census challenges to keep an eye on
The census has long undercounted certain groups, especially people who are black,
Hispanic, American Indian (on reservations), renters (which is a proxy for people with
lower incomes) and young children. Hard-to-count groups are a growing share of the
total population. If you want to dive deeper into this topic, download this free167-page
book, which is pretty readable: https://www.springer.com/gp/book/9783030109721
Here is some recent journalism about disinformation:
1. 2020 Census FAQ – update with questions from your
2. Talk with people/groups trying to achieve a complete
count in your area. Compare with other places. Zero
in on one hard-to-count group.
3. How well is the census going - is it meeting goals for
hiring, local partnerships and response rates?
4. How are census numbers used in your area, and
what federal money could be lost by a poor count?
5. What are the new census numbers likely to say?
September 13, 2019 10
Five stories any newsroom can do
FAQ – update as the census gets closer (for example, tell them how to identify whether
a census-taker is legitimate) or when your audience has questions. What are the
obstacles to complete count in your area: Could be a large hard-to-count population, or
fast growth or a natural disaster. The bureau’s ROAM (Response Outreach Area
Mapper) database lets you look at local-level information on hard-to-count populations:
https://www.census.gov/roam To evaluate how well the census is going, use the
Census Bureau’s own metrics; next spring the agency will release regular mail response
rates at the local level, so you can track how your area is doing and how it compares
with other areas. Here is how it worked in 2010:
2010-census/ It’s sometimes difficult to find out how census numbers actually are
used, but try your local planning department and transportation department; look for
examples of how local governments have planned facilities in part based on census
numbers. As for money that might be lost if the census count is poor, see link to
Andrew Reamer’s work in a later slide. As for what the new numbers are likely to say,
here are some publications to give you ideas: The growing number of counties that are
majority non-white: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/21/u-s-counties-
majority-nonwhite/ A Population Reference Bureau publication What the 2020 census
will tell us about a changing America https://www.prb.org/what-the-2020-u-s-census-
will-tell-us-about-a-changing-america/ and work by Brookings Institution demographer
Bill Frey https://www.brookings.edu/experts/william-h-frey/
September 13, 2019 11
Possible changes in U.S. House seats after 2020 census
As a result of these trends, 16 states will see a shift in congressional reapportionment
in 2020, according to a new report by Election Data Services. The biggest seat gains will
likely be seen in Florida and Texas. Texas is likely to gain three congressional seats,
which would give the state 39 seats in Congress. Florida is expected to gain up to two
additional congressional seats, bringing its total delegation to 29 starting in 2022. Many
states that are taking in large numbers of Americans from other parts of the country -
Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, Montana, and Oregon –will also gain at least one
The estimates also signal likely seat losses for the Midwest and the Northeast. As a
result of population decline and slower rate of growth, Election Data
Services projects that Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode
Island, and West Virginia will lose at least one congressional seat, with New York
potentially losing a second, as well. California and Minnesota are borderline cases, with
each facing the possibility of losing up to one seat.
September 13, 2019 12
Racial and ethnic change – what will we learn?
This is the flip side of gains in racial and ethnic diversity. In many areas, the non-
Hispanic white population either is declining in number or as a share of the total. This
map from Brookings Institution demographer Bill Frey shows where the white
population is gaining or declining in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas.
September 13, 2019 13
Homeownership by race – what will the 2020 census show?
September 13, 2019 14
What changes in family life will the 2020 census show?
Young adults now are the most likely generation to live in a multigenerational home,
often with their parents. The 2020 census also will give us new information about
same-sex couples – married or partners – as well as other types of living arrangements.
• Surveys – What do people know and think
about the census?
• Blog posts: How is the census done? (Tell me
what you’d like us to write about)
• Mini-course, delivered by email
• Track the conversation
September 13, 2019 15
Pew Research Center 2020 census research
Our work will show up here: https://www.pewresearch.org/topics/u-s-census/
Here is what Pew Research Center wrote about the census in 2010, including
apportionment basics, how prisoners are counted, and results of survey questions
about the census: https://www.pewresearch.org/topics/u-s-census/2010/
The Census Project (https://thecensusproject.org/) is a coalition of “private, public,
nonprofit and academic sectors”
Government Accountability Office (Congress): https://www.gao.gov/ (you can
search for reports by topic or agency)
Commerce Department Office of Inspector General:
National Conference of State Legislatures:
Congressional Research Service: https://crsreports.congress.gov/
State Data Centers (official liaisons with Census Bureau):Quality varies but some
have state demographers with expertise:
“Counting for Dollars” (Professor Andrew Reamer tracks census-guided federal
funding for the nation and states): https://gwipp.gwu.edu/counting-dollars-
September 13, 2019 16
Good sources for the 2020 census
Story list with census operation news pegs
You’ll now be the newsroom census expert!
Engage your graphics team in explaining the
Social media – especially Twitter – for news
tips and story sharing
What other ideas do you have?
September 13, 2019 17
We will post our work here: https://www.pewresearch.org/topics/u-s-census/