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Census 2020 Response Rate Analysis: Week 3

Mapping "Self-Response" for a Fair and Accurate 2020 Census (Week 3)

Prepared April 11, 2020

HTC 2020 map news

Links to analysis from prior weeks:

WEEK 3 (April 3 through April 9)

Summary materials:

National Response Rate Trends

The nationwide 2020 Census self-response rate as of Thursday, April 9, was 46.7%. When the Census Bureau first began reporting 2020 response rates on March 20, the U.S. rate was 14.1%. The national rate has continued to increase, but the day-by-day increase in the last week was slower than the first two weeks.

The trend is shown in the chart in Figure 1 below. The chart is annotated to show that from April 8 through April 16, the Census Bureau is mailing paper questionnaires to non-responding households. As part of the Self-Response operation, the Bureau also is sending reminder letters to housing units with mailable addresses that are part of the "Update/Leave" operation. This operation was suspended in March due to COVID-19. Unfortunately, this means that most households covered by Update/Leave have not received their hand-delivered census packets, which contain a paper form and information about how to respond on-line or by phone to the 2020 Census. We will be following the response rates as these paper forms are mailed back to the Bureau and as households in Update/Leave areas respond based on the reminder letters.

The chart visualizes the day-to-day response rates in 2010 (the long red line) compared with the rates so far in 2020 (the shorter red line noted with the arrow). The other lines represent state-by-state response rates in 2020. (The Census Bureau did not publish daily response rates from 2010 at the state level.)


NB: Keep in mind the differences in census operations between 2010 and now when comparing response rate trends. Census operations were different in 2010, which may impact the difference in the national trend. For example, there was no online option, there were only two mailings (rather than staggered waves of initial mailings and multiple follow up mailings in 2020), and of course, there was no pandemic in 2010 that caused key census operations to be delayed and completely upended Get Out the Count (GOTC) campaigns that were based significantly on in-person outreach. Nonetheless, one way stakeholders will be measuring the success of the 2020 national self-response operation is whether the nation meets and surpasses its 2010 rate. On a local level, in addition to following the 2020 rate compared with the final 2010 rate, you can also compare how your area is doing compared with others nearby, or similar areas across the state, and for larger regions such as counties, the state, and nation as a whole.

The following graphs show the latest 2020 response rates by state, and the percentage point change by state from March 20, when the Census Bureau first reported response rates, until now.

FIGURE 2 States ranked by April 9 census response rate (the final 2010 U.S. rate and the current U.S. 2020 rate are included for comparison). Click to enlarge.

FIGURE 3 States ordered left-to-right by lowest response rate to highest on April 9 (including the current national rate and final 2010 response rate for comparison).  Brown bars represent the beginning response rate (March 20); the blue bars represent the increase between 3/20 and 4/9. Click to enlarge.

Key areas of concern analyzed for Week 3

In addition to the nationwide response rate trends, we focused our Week 3 analysis on the following issues:

  1. Progress in Update/Leave areas (especially response rates on tribal lands)
  2. Response rates in tracts across cities, by size of city
  3. Historically undercounted populations (based on census tract demographic characteristics)
    • Children under age 5
    • People of color
    • Population in poverty
    • Hard-to-count (HTC) tracts
  4. Response rates by educational attainment

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, by phone, or by mailing back the questionnaire.

The Update/Leave operation was suspended on March 18, just 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, areas with large shares of housing units covered by Update/Leave continue to have low self-response rates. In census tracts across the country that have at least some housing units covered by Update/Leave (only about 20% of tracts nationwide), the average share of homes in Update/Leave is 15%. In tracts above that average, the typical self-response rate is only 25%, well below the U.S. response rate of almost 50%.

Update/Leave on Tribal Lands

For Week 3, we examined how the suspension of Update/Leave is impacting tribal areas, and also whether Update/Leave areas have reliable internet connectivity.

The Census Bureau is publishing response rates for 315 tribal areas across the country. The latest response rates are low for most of these areas: 20% or less in more than half of them. Response rates in some of the largest tribal lands are very low. For example, in the Navajo Nation Reservation and Off-Reservation Trust Land (covering an area of almost 173,000 people spanning three states: Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah), the response rate on April 9 was less than 1% (0.3%). The latest response rate for the Navajo Reservation can be viewed at this link on our map.

The map below in Figure 4 displays the response rates by tribal area in the continental U.S. (There is only 1 tribal area in Alaska for which the Bureau is publishing response rates. Most of the 37 Native Hawaiian areas have response rates above the national average.)


Update/Leave and Internet Access

Because most households in the Update/Leave operation have not received their paper forms yet, we wanted to examine the availability of internet access in these areas. We analyzed the share of households that reported having no home internet subscriptions based on the latest American Community Survey estimates (for the 2014-2018 period). We focused on tracts in the 10 states where the Update/Leave share of housing units is greatest (based on our Week 2 analysis: Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, Wyoming).

The average response rate across these tracts is only 29%, compared to almost 48% response rate for tracts in these states with no Update/Leave housing units. We found that, on average, 21% of households in the Update/Leave tracts in these states have no home internet access.


Response rates vary substantially between urban areas and non-urban areas; within urban areas, they vary by size of city.  (For this analysis we examined tract-level response rates for tracts that are wholly or mainly within one of the Census Bureau-designated "incorporated places" for which the Bureau is publishing response rates.)

For our analysis, we used a modified scale from the National League of Cities to determine incorporated place or city size by population (all population counts are based on the latest American Community Survey estimates for 2014-2018):

  • Small cities have fewer than 50,000 people;
  • Medium-size cities have between 50,000 and 300,000 people;
  • Large cities have between 300,000 and 1 million people; and
  • The largest cities having populations of 1 million or more (there are 10 of these nationwide).

We found that compared with the U.S. rate as of April 9 (46.7%), the average response rate for tracts in the nation's 10 largest cities (with 1 million people or more) was 38%. This is almost 8 percentage points below the national average. In contrast, average tract-level response rates in small (less than 50,000 population) and medium (50,000—300,000 population) cities are modestly above the national average.

For the nation's 10 largest cities with populations of 1 million or more, only two of these cities had response rates on April 9 above the national rate, both of them in California: San Jose and San Diego.  New York, the nation's largest city, had the lowest response rate (36%).

Table 1 below ranks these 10 largest cities by their April 9 response rate, highest to lowest, and provides the latest ACS population estimates as well as each city's final 2010 response rate for context and comparison.


Visually, the HTC 2020 map reveals the low response rates across these major cities in comparison to their surrounding suburbs. Figures 5, 6, and 7 below show the tract-level response rate patterns for three of these cities as examples: New York, Philadelphia, and Dallas. Figure 8 shows the difference in tract response rate patterns in San Jose.

FIGURE 5. A concentration of low response rate tracts (in brown) in New York City amid tracts with much higher rates (in blue) across NYC's suburbs. Note, however, that other nearby cities such as Newark to the immediate west and Yonkers just to the north also have concentrations of low response rate tracts. (Click map to view the latest rates online.)

FIGURE 6. A similar pattern between Philadelphia (highlighted in yellow) and its suburbs. You can also see a similar pattern in Trenton, NJ to the northeast. (Click map to view the latest rates online.)

FIGURE 7. Low response tracts concentrated in Dallas and its neighbor, Fort Worth, compared with higher rates outside both cities. (Click map to view the latest rates online.)

FIGURE 8. One of the two exceptions to the trends above: San Jose, CA shown below, with the opposite pattern compared to the three maps above. It has the highest response rate of all 10 cities of 1 million people or more (almost 55% -- higher than the national average). (Click the map to view the latest rates online.)


Children Under 5 Years of Age

Children under 5 represent the age group with the greatest net undercount in the decennial census. Although self-response rates do not tell us the extent of possible undercounting of any specific demographic group, nor do they indicate anything on their own regarding census accuracy, examining response rates in communities where children are at greatest risk of being undercounted can help census stakeholders target their outreach strategies and messaging to promote inclusion of young children in household census responses.

We examined response rates by tracts nationwide across 689 counties that were studied by the Population Reference Bureau, to determine tracts at greatest risk of an undercount of young children.

We found that:

  • Tracts with low risk of undercounting young children had an average response rate of 52% (above the national average).
  • Tracts with High Risk had an average response rate of 48% (slightly higher than the national rate).
  • Tracts with Very High Risk had an average response rate below the national level, at 40%.

We also examined the response rates by risk category for 34 counties that are home to half of all young children in tracts with very high risk of undercount, according to Count All Kids.

Rates are lower for all categories in tracts in these counties:

  • Tracts in these 34 counties with low risk of undercounting young kids had an average response rate of 47% (above the national average).
  • Tracts with High Risk had response rate of 45% (slightly higher than the national rate)
  • Tracts with Very High Risk had an average response rate below the national level, at 39%.

In order to help census stakeholders in these counties, we prepared a table of response rates by county, available at this link

People of color

For this analysis, 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.

We examined the latest response rates for tracts based on plurality population for each major racial group and Hispanic origin. We cross-tabulated these tracts based on population size of the city in which they are located, and found the following patterns, discussed below (click to enlarge):


NOTES: Cities in Hawaii are considered unincorporated places and operate under a City/County government structure, so they are not included as “Cities” in this analysis.

Also, there are only 222 tracts nationwide in which the plurality population is American Indian/Alaska Native. Most of these (208) are located outside “incorporated places.” There are only 14 tracts within incorporated places, in the smallest city category.

The key findings in Table 2 above are highlighted in red:

  • Predominantly Hispanic census tracts had lowest average response rates for cities of all sizes: 35.9%.
  • Predominantly Black census tracts also had below-average response rates (for all tracts in those size cities), especially in cities above 1 million people: 34.9%.
  • Predominantly Asian census tracts had response rates well above national average in small cities (53.5%) and medium-size cities (52.9%), but well below the national average in cities with more than 1 million people: 38.8%.
  • The average response rate for predominantly White census tracts across cities of all sizes was 47.9%.

People with incomes below the poverty line

For this analysis, we focused on what are considered by poverty advocacy groups to be "High poverty" tracts, in which more than 30% of residents for whom the poverty level has been determined have incomes below the poverty line.

The average response rate across all high poverty tracts nationwide is 34.5%, more than 12 points lower than the national average.

Tracts with less than 30% of their population in poverty had an average response rate of 47%, which is above the national average.

"Hard-to-count" tracts

When the CUNY HTC 2020 map was launched in Oct. 2017, it used "mail return rates" from the 2010 Census as the primary metric for tracts at greatest risk of undercount. Unlike real-time response rates that we are tracking now, mail return rates represent the number of households that self-responded, as a share of occupied housing units (households) only. This way of measuring self-response can only be calculated after the census is complete; the calculation removes vacant and nonexistent housing units from the denominator, which can only be identified during the door-knocking phase (Nonresponse Follow-up, or NRFU).

Using the 2010 mail return rate, the HTC map highlights tracts in yellow-to-red on the map as the "hardest to count" tracts in the country, where 73% of households or less mailed back their census form in 2010.

Based on current 2020 self-response rates, these tracts have a lower-than-average response rate of 35% (more than 10 points lower than the U.S. rate).

Tracts that had a higher 2010 mail return rate now have an average self-response rate above the national rate: 49%.


We examined response rates by tract compared with education levels for the population age 25 and older. We found:

  • Tracts where more people have higher levels of education (college & advanced degrees), response rates tend to be higher (there was a strong positive statistical correlation).
  • Conversely, in tracts with greater concentrations of people with a high school degree or less, rates tend to be lower (a strong negative correlation).

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.