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Misconceptions about the Census

Despite the importance of the decennial census, its scope, purpose, and constitutional foundation are not widely understood.  Recently, the Census Bureau conducted the 2020 Census Barriers, Attitudes, and Motivators Study (CBAMS), which found that two-thirds of the U.S. population have only a cursory knowledge of the census. This unfamiliarity with how the census works is most prevalent in less educated individuals, but is about the same across racial groups. Hispanic, white, and black individuals are more or less just as likely to be unfamiliar with the particulars of the census. Misconceptions about the census may be benign in some cases but in others, it may be problematic as misinformation and concerns about data confidentiality could discourage people from responding.

Source: 2020 Census Barriers, Attitudes, and Motivators Survey


The majority of the data referenced in this post is from the CBAMS, which was released in late January, 2019. The study consisted of a nationwide survey and a series of focus groups. Results from this study will inform the Census Bureau’s strategy and approach in how it educates the public about the decennial census, particularly in how it will counteract misconceptions. Outlined in the chart below are the most common misconceptions about the census as revealed in the study.

Source: 2020 Census Barriers, Attitudes, and Motivators Survey


Myth 1: “If I don’t respond I won’t be counted”

The decennial census is not voluntary. Nearly three out of four individuals surveyed by the CBAMS were unaware that census participation is required by law.

Every household will receive an invitation to participate in the 2020 Census from either a postal worker or a census worker. For the first time, most households will receive a letter directing them to complete the census questionnaire online. About twenty percent of U.S. households—those unlikely to respond online, such as older adults and infrequent internet users—will receive a paper questionnaire, which will also include information about how to respond online or by phone.

Individuals are not off the hook if they don’t respond. Every household that hasn’t responded will receive reminders and eventually a paper questionnaire.  If households still have not responded, Census workers will follow up in person – up to three times – and then they will consult neighbors or mail carriers to obtain basic information concerning inhabitants. If all else fails, the census will consult state and federal records to estimate uncounted persons.

Studies have shown that when households participate voluntarily and in a timely manner, census data is more accurate and census operating costs are significantly reduced. In 2010, the pre-paid postage for mailing back the census form only cost the government 42 cents, while a visit by a census enumerator cost $57.

Myth 2: “My information will be shared”

About one-quarter of respondents to the CBMAS were “extremely concerned” or “very concerned” that the Census Bureau would not keep their answers confidential. However, the law requires the Census Bureau to keep information confidential and to only produce aggregate statistics (summary data that gives an overview of the population as opposed to individual records). Officials cannot publicly release any census information that could identify an individual. Census workers take a lifetime oath to keep census data private – which if broken could lead to a minimum 5 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $250,000. Under Title 13 of the United States Code, personal information that is submitted through the census is protected for 72 years and the Supreme Court of the U.S. has ruled that the Patriot Act cannot preempt Title 13.

Myth 3: “My information will be used against me”

The foremost worry of Americans is that their personal data will be used by the government for reasons other than for census purposes. Nearly a quarter of all people worry that responses to the census will be used against them. Six percent believed the census helps the police and FBI track people who break the law, and 31 percent were unsure whether or not the census is used this way.

Information shared in the census cannot be used to determine eligibility for government benefits and can never be shared with immigration enforcement agencies or law enforcement. Title 13 prohibits the U.S. Census Bureau from sharing personal data with any other government agency. As a result, all government agencies, other than the U.S. Census Bureau, only have access to publicly available census data.

Source: 2020 Census Barriers, Attitudes, and Motivators Survey


The key to removing common census misconceptions is extensive education and outreach, which is beginning to ramp up within the Census Bureau. When the public is correctly informed, barriers for participation in the upcoming 2020 census are lessened, and the odds of an accurate census are improved.