Is the census still the only reliable population data source?
While the census is still the "gold standard" of data, state and local governments are exploring alternative sources to supplement missing or unrepresentative datasets, experts say.
The 2020 census was riddled with production challenges, causing a delay in the release of essential data products, some of which the Census Bureau still has not published—more than two years after the survey was conducted.
Low response rates, staffing shortages, budget constraints and the COVID-19 pandemic all contributed to the delay in data results, according to a recent report from the Census Project, a collaboration of cross-sector organizations dedicated to improving data for evidence-based investments and policies. As a result, data collection and processing efforts fell behind schedule.
The Census’ challenges were most glaring when data critical to governments’ redistricting did not reach state officials until August 2021–five months behind schedule. The 2020 American Community Survey 1-year and 5-year estimates were also delayed, which was “a bit of a wakeup call to a lot of data users that they’d been taking [ACS data] for granted when suddenly it wasn’t available,” Co-director of the Census Project Howard Fienberg told GCN.
But leaders looking to get insights about their communities aren’t limited by the data available from the census. “You can supplement, and you can build out from ACS data in all sorts of ways,” Fienberg said. For instance, state and local governments can leverage administrative records that contain valuable data such as Social Security or tax records.
Data users may also partner with private data companies with more advanced data capabilities, said Laura Katz, senior vice president of EASI Demographics, a data and analytic software provider. Companies such as EASI Demographics can help “fill the gaps” because they are not limited to just using census data when they conduct data analytics for government users, she said.
For instance, Katz said her company can integrate data from the U.S. Postal Service with the census to calculate population estimates at the ZIP code-level, a unit the census does not include. Smaller cities and towns can get access to more granular information than may be available from census data, she added.
“When you’re looking at the state-level, you can go online and find a lot of what you need,” Katz said. “But when you want to get down to the smaller geographies … it’s not as widely available.”
Academic institutions or coalition groups are another valuable population data source that government should leverage, said Dana Watters, program director of the Local Democracy Initiative at the National League of Cities.
Experts in organizations like these can offer data insights on less represented populations, she said. For example, the Arab American Institute conducts its own population estimates for communities such as Middle Eastern or North African individuals, which the census considers as part of the white population count.
Community groups such as homeless or domestic violence shelters are another source of information, Watters said. “They may not have the capacity to conduct a really good individual count, but they do know where people are and what people need.”
Leaders may even consider completing their own surveys or requesting a special census, meaning asking Census Bureau officials to conduct a supplemental population and housing count for local jurisdictions. However, these methods are often costly and time-intensive, she said.
Overall, government leaders will continue to rely on census data to drive decisions, and while the federal population count “is still the gold standard … that gold is a little tarnished,” Fienberg said.
This story was changed May 25 to correct the spelling of Howard Fienberg's name.