Why the 2020 Census is Essential to Municipalities

In honor of today’s “Our Power, Our Census” national day of action, led by the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights/Census Counts, the National League of Cities’ census partner, we lay out the broad implications for municipalities of the 2020 Census, COVID-19, and civic empowerment.

While the decennial census is always important for its allocation of over $1.5 trillion (with a ‘T’!) in federal funding across 316 federal programs, the 2020 census is perhaps the most consequential in generations. Getting the count wrong right now will have impacts for the next 10 years on how well-resourced cities, towns and villages are to recover from COVID-19 and in shaping the systems that respond to and rectify institutional and structural racism. The events of 2020 mean that the implications of a fair and accurate 2020 Census have gone from important, to urgent, to emergency levels for municipalities’ abilities to address their communities’ needs in the coming decade.

Impacts of COVID-19 on the Census Count

Beginning with the shutdown orders in March, COVID-19 has impacted the logistics of census operations without precedent in its 230-year history, including the full stoppage of all field operations for 90 days. The effects of this on the count are clear:

  • At 60.9%, the national self-response rate of households currently lags the same 2010 rate by about 6%, despite being six weeks past the end of the regular self-response period.
  • Three months into the 2020 Census, response rates in Puerto Rico, many American Indian tribal lands, and some rural areas are in the single digits and low teens because they only received their first census communications in the last few weeks. These areas have been severely impacted by the suspension and delay of Update/Leave operations, in which households without city-style mailing addresses or that were severely affected by natural disasters only receive census information when a Bureau employee hand-delivers census packets to their homes.
  • The door-knock phase of the census, known as Non-Response Follow Up (NRFU), has been pushed back to August 11-October 31. The phase targets the ~40% of households that have not yet self-responded, which is largely comprised of households in historically undercounted communities (more below). The new dates for NRFU – the largest field operation with hundreds of thousands of enumerators knocking on doors to ensure a complete count – overlap with hurricane season, the traditional flu season, and the projected second peak of COVID-19.
  • The count is now extended to October 31, three months later than its original end date. This prompted the Census Bureau to request Congress to approve a 120-day delay to deliver the census data used to ensure fair and accurate representation in congressional reapportionment and elections redistricting (more below).

All these factors increase the need for extra diligence to ensure the fairness and accuracy of the count by both the Census Bureau and its national partner organizations.

Historically Undercounted Communities & the 2020 Census

Every census, extra effort is made to count groups that are historically undercounted, including babies and kids under 5, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), renters, college students, LGBTQ community, people with low English proficiency, immigrants, mixed-status households, and low-income households.

As the 2020 Census has progressed, these same mostly Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities now have the added challenge of getting counted as they have been disproportionately impacted by COVID‑19 in illness and death rates as well as COVID-related economic displacement due to job loss – that is, they may physically no longer be in their homes to see any of the multiple official census mailings inviting and reminding them to respond to the census.

The historic uprisings and vital social discourse in the wake of George Floyd’s murder have brought into sad and stark relief why NLC and the national coalition of census organizers have focused their efforts on counting historically undercounted communities. The fact is that, currently, the most undercounted tracts in the country are tracts whose residents are mostly BIPOC:

As our national conversation and movement to break down institutional and systemic racism continues, the results of the 2020 Census are critical to lifting up the representation and voices of these communities.

Our Power, Our Census – Local Democracy is Critical to Systems that Serve Everyone

Civic empowerment starts with civic participation. Getting the count right now improves the accuracy and fairness of the final census data; when and how that data is used ties directly to how municipalities and their residents are represented in elected government, at all levels, for the next 10 years. Understanding that the country has embarked upon a national conversation and movement around systemic racial inequality that could lead to significant changes to federal, state, and local policies and legislation, it is imperative to recognize how census data fits into the equation of the election.

The delayed 2020 Census means that congressional reapportionment data – state population totals and the number of seats in Congress allocated to each state – will be delivered to the president by April 30, 2021. Tract-level data used to draw equally populated district lines in the redistricting process will be delivered to states by July 31, 2021. The 120-day delay for both these deadlines means that new census data will not be available to draw new districts before dates for candidate filing, primaries, and general elections in off‑year state elections in New Jersey and Virginia in 2021. Nearly all other states would need to adjust their legislation or policies to accommodate deadlines for 2022 elections.


Local leaders have options for how to address these disparities in the 2020 count. Even with COVID-19 limiting most or all in-person events, these resources can help cities, towns, and villages to target their  outreach to their low-response tracts and historically undercounted communities:

Thank you to the census champions in municipal governments and community partners across the country for their tireless work to ensure a fair and accurate count that grows more critical with every passing day of this historic year.


About the Authors

Miki Noguchi is the Cities Count Program Manager with NLC’s Local Democracy Initiative

Spencer-Wagner-small.jpgSpencer Wagner is the Program Specialist with NLC’s Local Democracy Initiative. His research focuses on state preemption of local policy and its impacts.