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Census Self-Response Rates Explained

March 10, 2020

The Center for Urban Research (CUR) at the CUNY Graduate Center today updated its Census 2020 Hard to Count (HTC 2020) map with self-response trends from the past two decennial census counts to provide historical context to stakeholders as they fine-tune their Get Out the Count plans and participate in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Response Rate Challenge.

The explainer below discusses the different ways the Census Bureau measures self-response:

What are self-response rates and why are they different from what the map featured before?

The Census Bureau uses different terminology and calculations to measure the concept of “self-response” - i.e., the number of households that have "self-responded" by filling out the census form on their own, as a percent of housing units in a given area.

One measure is the return rate. If you've been using the HTC 2020 map, you're probably familiar with return rates because that's what we've used to highlight census tracts where 73% or fewer households in 2010 mailed back their census forms, making them among the hardest to count tracts nationwide.

The "return rate” represents the number of households that fill out the census form on their own (in 2010, that meant mailing it back) as a percent of occupied housing units only.

But the “return” rate can only be calculated after the census count is completed, once the Census Bureau determines which housing units are occupied or vacant and whether some addresses turned out to be nonexistent.

Another measure is the response rate, which represents the number of households returning their census questionnaire as a percent of all housing units (whether they're occupied, vacant, demolished, or otherwise undeliverable as addressed). The "response" rate is a less precise measure of self-response, or household cooperation, than the "return" rate. But the “response” rate is the only way to measure self-response while the census is taking place.

For 2020, the Census Bureau will be calculating and reporting response rates during the 2020 count. Therefore, to directly compare the 2020 rates with earlier censuses and to be consistent with the Census Bureau's reporting, we’ve added the response rates to the HTC map. The data on mail “return” rates is still available on the map, but the “response” rates are now more prominent. Remember that response rates tend to be lower than return rates for any given area, simply because of math: the response rate denominator is larger (all housing units vs only occupied housing units), so the rate itself is smaller. Keep that in mind if you've familiarized yourself with the mail return rates we've been displaying on the HTC map.

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.