Let’s Ditch the Census

Whether it’s U.S. customs declaration forms or tax returns, Americans are used to a long list of annoying questions from the federal government (Big Brother) that touch upon every aspect of their lives. Next year, Americans will have to undergo the decadal tradition of responding to the U.S. Census, as a part of the Constitutional requirement that the government create an “actual enumeration” across the country every ten years.

A misinterpretation of this language has led to an intrusive, top-down process that has long outlived its usefulness. Instead of tired, old debates over citizenship and income questions, the government should rely more on existing administrative records and data from competing research/survey companies. Innovation in enumeration can lead to more accurate data, giving policymakers a wealth of useful information without the stain of politics. And as an added bonus, it could save taxpayers billions of dollars.

When the Founding Fathers first enshrined the “actual enumeration” of U.S. citizens into the Constitution, the only way of keeping track of the citizenry was by going through the land, appointing marshals to go district by district, household by household. But over the years, the country has grown and these methods are outdated.  In fact, other countries have begun to realize that an “actual” count can be achieved by bringing together data already collected via various systems such as social safety nets. The United Nations notes that in more than a dozen European countries (i.e. Switzerland, Norway, Germany), bureaucrats simply cobble together data already on the books to create elaborate, linked records in master databases.

To see what this would look like in practice, consider how websites such as Ancestry.com help consumers find relatives past and present. Their master database contains wide-ranging records such as birth, marriage, and death certificates, as well as citizenship/naturalization documents. If the government wanted even more information in their “census” database, they could make use of more detailed records at their disposal such as tax records. The National Research Council has suggested that this could work, noting in a 1995 report that, “high proportion of the U.S. population is included in one or more existing administrative records…the coverage… may well expand in the future.”

It seems difficult for any alternative to do as thorough of a job as the current enumeration process. But the current system systematically undercounts minorities, and if the Trump administration gets its way in including a citizenship question, even fewer people will be inclined to answer Census questions. Where the federal government has failed in getting an accurate picture of the illegal immigrant population, private survey questions may prove to have better methods of encouraging people to come out of the shadows. Even absent the politically-charged immigration issue, some people simply refuse to be counted and repeatedly throw out questionnaires or refuse to answer their doors to the counters. It is far more feasible and cost-effective to get a representative sample of hold-out populations than going door to door to a population that doesn’t like to open their doors to government representatives.

This approach would likely be less costly across the board. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has classified the Census as a “high-risk program,” citing escalating expenses and cost overruns. In 2010 (the year of the most recent census), the cost of counting a household had climbed more than five-fold from 1970 even after adjusting for inflation. The 2020 Census will likely cost the U.S. government more than $15 billion, more than 27 percent higher than the original cost estimate made in 2015.

These escalating costs are particularly puzzling given that the rise of the digital domain and internet research has made data collection cheaper and quicker than ever before. By creating digitally merging existing administrative records, the government can finally make the leap toward lower costs and greater efficiencies. And where the government falls short, established research companies can fill in the gaps via representative sampling. As the byproduct of a dysfunctional public sector, the Census has never been – and will never be – perfect. But policymakers can do a better job at providing a better quality “actual enumeration,” at a fraction of the cost to taxpayers.