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Census 2020 Response Rate Analysis: Week 2

Mapping "Self-Response" for a Fair and Accurate 2020 Census (Week 2)

Prepared April 5, 2020

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WEEK 2 (March 27 through April 2)

Links to analysis from prior weeks:

Click to view a summary presentation from this week's analysis [PDF]

National Response Rate Trends

The nationwide 2020 Census self-response rate as of Thursday, April 2, was 41.3%. When the Census Bureau first began reporting 2020 response rates on March 20, the U.S. rate was 14.1%. It has almost tripled since then.

There was a substantial increase in the day-over-day rate on April 1, i.e., “Census Day” which is the Census Bureau’s “reference day” for filling out census forms (the date is not a deadline – households can self-respond until mid-August). Census stakeholders  across the country organized a concerted digital effort that day to amplify the importance of filling out the census questionnaire. This outreach represented a major shift by the stakeholders. Much of their Get Out the Count (GOTC) strategies and tactics before COVID-19 were based on in-person contact; the public health crisis required stakeholders to pivot quickly to social media, phone outreach, texting, and other “at a distance” methods.

The impact of this one-day outreach campaign is reflected in the chart below. (The chart and figures have been updated with response rates through April 4.) The national self-response rate increased almost 3 points on Census Day over the previous day. Prior daily increases were approximately 2 points per day or less. The chart also shows that the rate increased in most states, reflecting the nationwide outreach effort. We discuss the impact of #CensusDay2020 activities further at the April 3 issue of our HTC Map email newsletter.


The following graphs show the latest 2020 response rates by state, and the percentage point change by state from March 20 till now.

FIGURE 2. States ranked by April 4 census response rate (the final 2010 U.S. rate and the current U.S. 2020 rate are included for comparison).

FIGURE 3. States ordered left-to-right by response rate on April 4.  Brown bars represent the beginning response rate (March 20); the blue bars represent the increase between 3/20 and 4/4. The final U.S. 2010 rate and current U.S. 2020 rate are included for comparison.

Key areas of concern analyzed for Week 2

In addition to the nationwide response rate trends, we have focused our Week 2 analysis on the following issues:

  1. Suspension of Update/Leave operation
  2. Possible relationship with COVID-19 trends
  3. Internet First / Internet Choice / bilingual mailings
  4. Response rates by demographic characteristics
  1. Suspension of Update/Leave operation

The Census Bureau’s Update/Leave operation encompasses approximately 6.8 million housing units (approximately 5 million of which are stateside; the remaining units are in Puerto Rico). It is focused on communities where using the mail to deliver census invitations might be unreliable because homes lack city-style addresses, or a majority of a community receives mail only at P.O. Boxes, or most residents are seasonal, or a community is recovering from a natural disaster.

In the Update/Leave operation, a census worker visits all housing units, updating the Census Bureau’s Master Address File and verifying the location spatially, and then leaving a census packet at the door. Census workers try to make contact with someone in the home, or nearby, to confirm the address and determine if there are any other living quarters on the property. The Update/Leave packet includes a paper questionnaire, as well as online instructions and a unique ID for online or phone response. Households can submit their census responses online or by phone, or by mailing back the questionnaire.

The Update/Leave operation was suspended on March 20, four days after it began. Only 5% of the housing units covered by this operation had received their census packets (meaning 95% of the housing units covered by Update/Leave have not received their packets yet).

Nationwide, the Update/Leave operation covers a relatively small universe of housing units: the Census Bureau estimates that it only includes 5% of the nation’s residential addresses.  But in some states, the Update/Leave operation covers a substantial portion of homes. For example:

  • in Alaska, almost 30% of the state’s housing units were scheduled to receive hand-delivered packets. Alaska’s census self-response rate as of April 2 was 25.5%, the lowest in the country.
  • in West Virginia, 27% of the state’s housing units are in Update/Leave areas. As of April 2, West Virginia’s response rate was 29.6%, the second lowest nationwide.
  • in New Mexico, almost 18% of the housing units are in Update/Leave areas. The state’s response rate was 30.7% on April 2, the third lowest nationwide.

The shares of housing units presented above are based on the latest housing unit estimates from the 2014-2018 (5-year) American Community Survey data.

Table 1 below presents the 10 states with the largest share of housing units in Update/Leave. The states are ranked in order of lowest to highest self-response rates as of April 2.  All but two of these states have the lowest response rates nationwide.


The map views below are taken from our HTC map.  The maps compare response rates by census tract as of April 2 with areas where the Census Bureau had planned to hand-deliver census packets to households. Figures 4 and 6 show response rates shaded darkest brown for the lowest rates. Figures 5 and 7 show Update/Leave areas highlighted in yellow. 

Figure 4 shows the response rates from last week in the southwest including Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and most of Texas.


Figure 5 displays the patterns of the Census Bureau’s contact strategies across the same region: households in areas shown in green and purple have received mailed invitations from the Bureau to respond to the census. Households in areas in yellow were to receive hand-delivered packets. Most areas in this region with low response rates overlap very closely with the Update/Leave areas.


In Figures 6 and 7 below, the overlap between low self-response and Update/Leave is more striking. Figure 5 focuses on the Midwest and parts of the Northeast. In particular, tracts in West Virginia, upper Wisconsin, and parts of New York, including the Adirondacks and the Catskills, have especially low self-response rates.


Figure 7 shows the same region. The areas in yellow cover almost exactly the same census tracts that are part of the Update/Leave operation.


Finally, Figure 8 below uses counties in New Mexico as an example to emphasize the correlation between very low response rates and areas where large shares of households were in the Update/Leave operation. The one outlier county (Los Alamos) has the highest response rate in the state, and a relatively high response rate so far nationwide. Almost all housing units in this country received a mailed invitation from the Census Bureau, and almost all households that responded so far have done so via the internet.

The small circles on the graph represent counties. The red line sloping downward from left to right indicates the negative relationship between response rates and shares of housing in Update/Leave: the greater the concentration of Update/Leave, the lower the response rate.


The figures and scatterplot above help confirm that in areas where Update/Leave is prevalent, response rates are, not surprisingly, very low compared to all other tracts. What are some of the relevant population characteristics of these areas?

One population group experiencing historic and persistent census undercounts is people of color. In order to estimate the race and ethnicity (Hispanic origin) characteristics of the population in Update/Leave areas, we examined the tract-level population estimates from the latest American Community Survey (for the 2014-2018 period) for tracts in the 10 states listed in Table 1 above (with the greatest shares of housing units covered by Update/Leave).

We calculated that on average, 17% of a tract’s housing units in these states was covered by Update/Leave. We then tallied the population estimates by race/ethnicity for tracts that were above average (i.e., where more than 17% of housing units were in Update/Leave). This represents an overall estimated population of approximately 2.76 million people (the total population of these “above average” tracts, not only people living in Update/Leave housing units).

Of these 2.76 million people:

  • 84% are White (people identifying as White on the ACS questionnaire either alone or in combination with other races, and without regard to Hispanic origin);
  • 11% are American Indian (also “alone or in combination” with other races regardless of Hispanic origin);
  • 9% are Hispanic (people of Hispanic origin can be of any race); and
  • 3% are Asian (“alone or in combination” with other races regardless of Hispanic origin); and
  • Other racial groups comprise smaller percentages.

These statistics portray the racial and ethnic composition of the population overall in the above-average Update/Leave communities in those 10 states. Nationwide, however, the Update/Leave operation is primarily concentrated in American Indian communities. Tracts within American Indian reservations fall under the Update/Leave operation, unless the tribe elected to be counted through the separate Update/Enumerate operation, which doesn't involve self-response. Therefore, suspension of Update/Leave means that most households on American Indian reservations have not received their census packets yet.

  1. Possible correlation between Census self-response and COVID-19 incidence

We downloaded county-level data from the New York Times for the number of COVID-19 cases and COVID-19 related deaths in the U.S., as of March 31.  We also separated cases in New York City by county within the city.

Comparing these data with county-level Census self-response rates shows a very slight positive correlation between self-response rates and COVID-19 cases, as well as response rates and COVID-19 related deaths.

It may be that because COVID-19 incidence is distributed across the country, there may not be enough geographic differentiation in its impact to show an easily identified correlation with census response. We will continue to examine this relationship.

  1. Census response rates in areas receiving Internet First and Internet Choice mailings, and areas receiving bilingual mailings

The Census Bureau has sent mailings to most households across the country to invite participation in the 2020 Census.  Most households nationwide (80% of the mail-out universe) received an “Internet First” mailing, which included a letter of invitation to respond online with a unique household ID number, as well as a Language Assistance sheet with 13 phone numbers to ask questions and to respond by phone.

Other households (20% of the mail-out universe), in areas lacking reliable internet access or where there are large concentrations of householders age 65 or older, received “Internet Choice” mailings. These census packets included the same materials as Internet First packets, but also included a paper questionnaire, giving households the “choice” to respond by mail from the start.

As of April 2, in tracts where households received an Internet First mailing:

  • The average overall response rate was 42.9%
  • The average internet response rate was 42.1%
    • 98% of the response in “Internet First” tracts has been online.
    • Both rates are above the national response rate.

In Internet Choice tracts, as of April 2:

  • The average overall response rate has been lower than Internet First tracts and nationwide rate: 35.4%.
  • The average internet response rate was 16.7%, In other words, less than half of the response in Internet Choice tracts has been online.

For both types of mailings, the Census Bureau further identified census tracts where at least 20% of households were recognized as needing "Spanish assistance.” These households received either an Internet First or Internet Choice mailing with bilingual English/Spanish materials.

Our analysis of response rates in “bilingual 2020 Census tracts” as of April 2 shows the following:

In Internet First tracts with bilingual mailings:

  • The average overall response rate was 33.2%.
  • The average internet response rate was 32%.

In Internet Choice tracts with bilingual mailings:

  • The average overall response rate was 30.6%.
  • The average internet response rate was 16.8%.
  1. Response rates analyzed by tract-level population characteristics

Self-response rates do not reveal any information about the number of people or the share of population that has been counted; self-response only represents households that have responded, as a share of all housing units on the Census Bureau’s address list. Self-response rates also do not tell us anything about the characteristics of the population or the households that have been counted so far, such as their race or ethnicity or whether there are young children in the household.

But we can examine patterns of response rates based on tract-level population characteristics, using the latest American Community Survey (ACS) estimates, to gauge how well communities with historically undercounted populations are responding compared with other communities. Below are selected findings from our Week 2 analysis.


For our Hard to Count map, we use ACS estimates for people who reported their race “alone or in combination with other races.” (Note: People of Hispanic origin can be of any race.) We also use ACS estimates for people who identify as being of Hispanic origin, regardless of race.

Using these estimates, we compare tract-level self-response rates for tracts whose populations are predominantly one race category or another, “alone or in combination with other races.” Note that we did not include tracts that are predominantly “American Indian or Alaska Native” or “Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.” Those tracts largely fall within the Update/Leave operation, which has been suspended.

Nationwide at the census tract level, as of April 2:

  • Tracts whose population is predominantly Hispanic had the lowest response rate, on average, compared with the other population groups we examined: 30.5%.
  • The average response rate for tracts whose population is predominantly Black is 35%.
  • The average response rate for tracts whose population is predominantly Asian is 41.8% (above the national rate).
  • Tracts whose population is predominantly White had the highest average response rate: 42.5% (above the national rate).

For other population groups, we were able to compare general response rate trends, including:

  • Are the rates generally higher or lower if a tract’s population has a smaller or greater share of one demographic group or another; and
  • How strong is that correlation: strongly positive or negative, or moderately or “weakly” positive or negative?

The results in Week 2 are similar to Week 1. Self-response rates tend to be lower as the share of foreign-born persons, people with incomes below 200% of the poverty level, limited English proficiency households, and renter households, viewed separately, increase at the tract level.

For Week 2, we also began to examine the trend in response rates compared with tract-level population of children under age 5, who had the highest net undercount of any age group in the 2010 Census.

For tracts that have a greater than average share of children under 5 years of age, the average response rate as of April 2 is 40.2% (slightly less than the national average).

For Week 3, we will examine response rates in tracts that are considered to have a High or Very High risk of undercounting for children under 5, based on an analysis by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Population Reference Bureau.

For more information, contact:

Center for Urban Research

at the Graduate Center, City University of New York

All work and materials are supported by a grant from the 2020 Census Project

and developed in partnership with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.