Census Bureau Contact Strategies Mapped

Posted November 22, 2019 [updated December 18, 2019; see notes in text below]

For the 2020 census, the Census Bureau will be providing options for households across the country to submit their census responses, compared with 2010 when almost all households received a paper questionnaire by mail and were asked to return the completed form also by mail. In order to explain to householders how they can take advantage of those options, the Census Bureau recently announced how they will be inviting householders to participate in the census, using a combination of different types of mailings, hand-delivery of census forms, and in-person enumeration.

This overview discusses these different options and how they will vary across different parts of the country — sometimes even varying within neighborhoods. Census stakeholders planning their "Get Out the Count" campaigns can use this information to inform local residents how they should expect the Census Bureau to be contacting them in 2020. In addition to the overview below, the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center has incorporated this detailed information by census tract into the online Census 2020 Hard to Count (HTC) map.

In the descriptions below, links to specific locations on the HTC map are included so you can easily see what each option means for your neighborhood.  You can also search for locations by street address or any other geographic area to quickly zoom in to your location of interest.  The Census Bureau also has an online Mail Contact Strategies Map and a separate online Type of Enumeration Area Viewer.

NOTE: It is critically important for households to respond to these contacts from the Census Bureau and fill out the census questionnaire when they receive it (or receive access to it online) — this is considered self-response. It's the most cost-effective and accurate way for the Bureau to count the population. If a householder does not respond to any of these contacts by the Census Bureau and does not fill out the census questionnaire on their own, the Bureau still has the responsibility (it's in the Constitution) to count them.

From spring through summer 2020, hundreds of thousands of census enumerators will visit households across the country that have not self-responded in order to count them in-person. This is called the nonresponse follow-up operation. But going door-to-door is expensive and challenging. Areas with large share of non-responding households are especially hard-to-count; this poses the greatest risk that communities will be undercounted and lose out on their fair share of federal funding, political representation, and local services.

2020 Census Contact Strategies Mapped in One Place

On Nov. 18, 2019 the Census Bureau announced the details of the different types of mailings they will send to households to invite participation in the 2020 census. Depending where you live, you may receive a mailed invitation with a unique ID to respond online or by phone (the Bureau refers to this as an "Internet First" mailing).  Or you may receive a paper version of the census questionnaire that you can mail back to the Bureau (this is an "Internet Choice" mailing because it will include the paper questionnaire plus instructions for responding online). Some of these areas may receive the mailing (which may include the paper questionnaire) in Spanish and English. And if you do not respond initially to any of these mailed invitations, the Bureau will mail you additional reminders, eventually sending you a paper questionnaire to fill out and mail back.

Earlier this year the Bureau published information on which parts of the country would not be receiving a mailed invitation.  Instead, these areas (where people tend to receive mail at PO Boxes instead of a street address, or have been impacted by recent natural disasters, or are otherwise rural) either will receive hand-delivered census packets from the Census Bureau or will be counted directly in-person.

The information on all the different 2020 Census contact techniques is now combined in one place at the Hard to Count map, so census stakeholders can inform local residents about what to expect when the 2020 decennial census takes place.

State-by-State Overview

Who will receive what kind of census contact, and where? The map below shows the share of housing units by state that will receive each kind of initial contact from the Census Bureau in 2020, based on data available from the Bureau via Excel files here and here[NOTE: the map below was updated December 2019 to reflect a small number of tracts nationwide that will receive mailings, but for which the Census Bureau has not yet indicated the type of mailings they will receive.]

CUR Census 2020 - map of contact strategies by housing unit by state

The pie slices on the map in purple or green represent the share of households that will receive a Census Bureau letter in the mail inviting them to respond. According to this fact sheet from the Census Bureau, overall these areas represent about 95% of the nation's housing units. The size of each state's pie chart on the map reflects the number of housing units in each state — larger pies mean more units, and vice versa (and we provide a table below with the number and percent of units by state in total, and for each census contact strategy).

The links in the table below will display a PDF map of each state visualizing the Census Bureau's 2020 contact strategies. [Added Dec. 2019]

State by state maps of Census Bureau 2020 Contact Strategies
Alabama Alaska Arizona
Arkansas California Colorado
Connecticut Delaware District of Columbia
Florida Georgia Hawaii
Idaho Illinois Indiana
Iowa Kansas Kentucky
Louisiana Maine Maryland
Massachusetts Michigan Minnesota
Mississippi Missouri Montana
Nebraska Nevada New Hampshire
New Jersey New Mexico New York
North Carolina North Dakota Ohio
Oklahoma Oregon Pennsylvania
Rhode Island South Carolina South Dakota
Tennessee Texas Utah
Vermont Virginia Washington
West Virginia Wisconsin Wyoming

For many states, the majority of the mailings will be English-only, and will correspond to what the Bureau calls its "Internet First" strategy: inviting households to respond online (or by phone). The mailed invitation will provide a unique ID for each household's address, asking the householder to go online to complete the questionnaire or to submit their responses by phone. This approach is represented by the light purple pie chart slices on the map.

  • For example, households in Tract 19 in Lexington, Kentucky will receive Internet First census letters by mail, in English (see this tract on the HTC map). In 2010 in this tract, only two-thirds of its households responded to the census mailing at the time (see the left-hand panel at the map link), meaning the remaining households had to be counted in-person. This tract is one of the hardest to count in the country.

Some states, such as California and Texas, will have a substantial share of households that will receive a bilingual — Spanish & English — "Internet First" mailing, represented by the dark purple pie chart areas on the map. According to the Census Bureau, the latest American Community Survey (ACS) estimates show that at least 20% of households in census tracts in these areas are recognized as needing "Spanish assistance" — defined as at least one household member aged 15 or older who speaks Spanish and does not speak English "very well". That's why the Bureau will provide bilingual instructions to these households.

  • Households in Tract 2427 in Los Angeles, CA will receive bilingual Internet First census letters by mail, in Spanish & English (see this tract on the HTC map). This tract is one of the hardest to count in the country, with a 2010 self-response rate of 67%.

A large share of households in California and Texas, as well as other states such as most southern states and central and northeastern states such as Michigan, Ohio, and New York, will receive an "Internet Choice" mailing, which will include a paper version of the census questionnaire as well as instructions and a unique ID for filling out the census form online or by phone. These are represented by the light green or dark green pie chart slices on the map.

According to the Census Bureau, the latest American Community Survey (ACS) estimates show that households in these areas had a low self-response rate and either a higher population of people age 65 or older, low internet subscribership rates, or low internet response during the latest ACS. The Bureau wants to make it easier for these households to respond to the 2020 Census by sending them the paper questionnaire AND the online/phone instructions.

  • Households in Tract 9608 in Sandusky County, OH will receive Internet Choice census letters by mail, in English (see this tract on the HTC map). Although 86% of this tract's households self-responded during the 2010 Census, almost a third of its current households have no home internet access, creating an obstacle for these householders to fill out the 2020 census online. With Internet Choice, the households can respond to the census by mailing back a completed paper questionnaire, or they can go online or respond by phone. At the HTC map link above, the map displays areas with poor internet access highlighted in blue cross-hatching, and also displays local public library branches so census stakeholders can collaborate with libraries to provide online access to the census form.

The areas represented by light green will receive English-only Internet Choice mailings. Other households will receive bilingual (Spanish & English) Internet Choice mailings, represented by the dark green pie chart slices on the map.

The table below (also available at this link as an Excel spreadsheet) provides state-by-state data corresponding to the map above, showing the number and percent of housing units in each state categorized by the Census Bureau's 2020 contact strategies. [NOTE: the spreadsheet & screenshot below were updated December 2019 to reflect a small number of tracts nationwide that will receive mailings, but for which the Census Bureau has not yet indicated the type of mailings they will receive.]

CUR Census 2020 - table of contact strategies by housing unit by state

Although the nationwide share of housing units that will receive hand-delivered census packets via the Census Bureau's Update/Leave operation is small (the Bureau estimates that it will only cover up to 5% of the nation's households), in some states it is much higher. Update/Leave refers to a census staff person visiting a housing unit, updating the unit's address to make sure the Bureau has an accurate address for that location, and then leaving a census packet at the doorstep. The packet will include a paper version of the questionnaire, as well as online instructions and a unique ID for online or phone response. Householders can then submit their information either online or by phone, or by mailing back the questionnaire.

In West Virginia, almost 25% of its housing units will receive a hand-delivered census packet. Almost 23% of the housing units in Alaska will receive census packets by hand. In the northeast, between 10 and 17% of the housing units in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine will receive hand-delivered census materials. And in the west, between 14 and 19% of the housing units in Montana, Wyoming, and New Mexico will receive the hand-delivered packets.

The remaining housing units — less than 1% of households in the US according to the Census Bureau — will not receive a mailing or a hand-delivered invitation; instead they will be counted directly in-person. This primarily occurs in parts of the country (such as northern Maine) that are easier to contact in person rather than by mail (known as Update/Enumerate), as well as the more rural parts of Alaska (through the Bureau's Remote Alaska operation). In these areas a census taker visits each household to update its address and enumerate its residents.

(The Bureau has separate ways of counting people who don't live in residential households, such as students in dorms, people in correctional facilities, nursing home residents, or people who are homeless.)

Languages other than English

Some of the areas covered by the Census Bureau's Update/Leave operation will receive bilingual census packets in Spanish and English. The Bureau is developing plans for which Update/Leave areas will receive bilingual, hand-delivered packets.

All the census packets that will be mailed or hand-delivered will also will include a Language Assistance insert with instructions in English plus 12 other languages for calling a phone assistance line with questions or to provide census responses right over the phone.