Could the U.S. Census be Cancelled?


Could the 2020 U.S. Census be cancelled? The current Administration certainly does not like facts and is eager to cut the budget where it can. A recent editorial in The New York Times (17 July 2017, p. A18) certainly suggests that it could be cut, with the article noting that:

The Government Accountability Office already put the 2020 census on its list of high-risk projects early this year, due to uncertainty about its budget and technology, and Americans’ increasing distrust of government data collection.

Collected every ten years since 1790, the census has consistently provided a basic count of the country’s population, although the scope and nature of information that has been collected in the census has changed over time. Concerns with privacy issues, for example, resulted in the cancellation of the 2010 Census long form that included sociodemographic and socioeconomic information. Instead, the 2010 Census became a largely numerical count of the American population, collecting information only on age, sex, date of birth, race, ethnicity, relationship, and housing tenure. The American Community Survey (ACS) replaced the Long Form and provided information on the US population. The ACS is not immune from attacks either, with attempts to kill the ACS in 2009.

But cancelling the Census is altogether different from reducing the amount of information collected. The U.S. Constitution mandates that the Census be done. What is at risk if the Census is cancelled? At the Federal level, information from the Census is used to distribute congressional seats and federal funds. At state and local levels, decisions around policy and program investments and where to spend money are often based on knowledge of the population. Places that have older or more vulnerable populations, for example, may receive additional financial support. Good governance depends on good data. Businesses and retailers also depend on the data collected by the US Census Bureau. But without a knowledge of the makeup of the population, policy, economic and business decisions are largely blind, and policies do not (and cannot) reflect the evidence that enables good decisions to be made. As a result, money may be miss-spent or poorly spent.

Could the Census be replaced with something else? Potentially. The United Kingdom, for example, explored dropping the decennial 2021 census and replacing it with administrative data derived from sources such as the UK’s National Health Service and Revenue and Customs. But, questions regarding the representativeness, quality, and accuracy of the data were raised, leading the UK to continue with the 2021 census. Despite the promise of administrative data, it is not yet ready for prime time.

At least for now, the U.S. continues to need the Census to ensure good governance.

Further Reading:

Save the Census. The New York Times, 17 July 2017, p. A18.  Available at:

For further information on the importance of the census to decision making, see:

Nicholas Eberstadt, Ryan Nunn, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, and Michael R. Strain. 2017. “In Order That They Might Rest Their Arguments on Facts”: The Vital Role of Government-Collected Data. American Enterprise Institute. Available at:


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