Census 2020: How to Count Hard-to-Count Communities

The census is one of the most basic functions of our federal system, requiring a count of every person in the United States every ten years. A precise count matters for city leaders because the results provide meaningful data for municipal operations as well as inform the allocation of more than $800 billion dollars of federal funding to state and local governments.

Local leaders can support an accurate count by identifying which residents are least likely to participate and investing in targeted outreach to ensure they do. Hard-to-count communities vary from city to city but are generally populations that historically have been undercounted and/or do not self-report as well as others. Examples of hard-to-count populations include persons of color, recent immigrants, young children, renters and low-income households.

We can get a good idea of where hard-to-count communities are by looking at participation rates in prior census cycles. This interactive map from City University of New York is a great tool that lets you search your community and get data on what neighborhoods require specific attention.

Identifying where your hard-to-count communities exist is just the beginning. Using this geographic information, city leaders should identify common factors in the community. Is it composed mostly of  rental units? Is it home to  significant numbers of individuals who are black, LatinX, Asian Pacific, indigenous or recent immigrants?

With this information, cities can partner with community-based organizations (CBOs) and service providers to help increase response rates to the Census. Additionally, cities should make sure to communicate with their local Census Bureau representatives and eventually share the collected information about the hard-to-count communities.

New guidelines from Census Counts 2020 can help local leaders estimate the amount of funding needed to work with these hard-to-count communities. The guide highlights three factors to consider:

  • Percentage of households that did not respond by mail to the 2010 Census;
  • The cost per person of reaching out to these hard-to-count communities; and
  • The number of hard-to-count individuals who should receive higher amounts of attention.

A good example to think about is the city and county of Denver, Colorado. Denver is a consolidated government, making our quick math a little easier. In 2010, 22 percent of Denver’s population did not self-respond. The Census Counts 2020 equation breaks out hard-to-count populations into three groups and notes how much they cost to count per person:

  • Basic outreach ($2 per person);
  • Moderate outreach ($25 per person); and
  • Intensive outreach ($75 per person).

Finally, the equation breaks down the number of hard-to-count people that should receive each level of funding:

  • Basic (100% of hard-to-count);
  • Moderate (10% of hard-to-count); and
  • Intensive (5% of hard-to-count)

With this information in mind, Denver could budget around $1.2 million to partner with community-based organizations to conduct appropriate Census follow-up with these hard-to-count communities. A sample budget is broken down below:

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While the 2020 Census is still almost one year away, now is a critical juncture for cities, towns and villages to begin preparing and funding operations for the census. This simple equation can be of great use to accomplish those goals.

For additional information and recommendations, leaders can consult NLC’s Municipal Action Guide.


Alex Jones small

About the Authors: Alex Jones is the manager of NLC’s Local Democracy Initiative, where his work focuses on unveiling the extent and effect of state intervention in city governance. Previously, he was a senior policy analyst at the Brookings Institution and strategic adviser to its Centennial Scholar Initiative.


Spencer Wagner small.jpgSpencer Wagner is a Local Democracy Associate with NLC’s Local Democracy Initiative. His research focuses on state preemption of local policy and its impacts. Spencer graduated from Elon University with a B.A. in Political Science & Policy Studies in 2018 and joined NLC that same year.