March 22, 2010

How does the Census know its participate rate?

Q. The Census Bureau has been making a lot of effort to get people to fill out their census forms. How do they know how well they are doing in persuading people to mail back the forms they receive?

For the 2010 Census, the Census Bureau will use a new real-time metric, called the “mail participation rate,” to report the share of U.S. households — by state, city, county and neighborhood — that send back their completed forms. As part of its promotional campaign to encourage rapid responses, the Census Bureau plans to release mail participation rates down to the neighborhood level each weekday, from March 22 to April 26. Knowing where the problems are could help the bureau and its partner organizations — such as local governments and community groups — steer their census-encouragement efforts to the areas that could benefit most. The 2010 mail participation rates will be displayed daily on a recently launched Census Bureau mapping tool.

The Census Bureau also tracked response in earlier census counts, but bureau officials say the measure they used in previous decades would not paint a true picture in areas with large numbers of empty homes. The mail participation rate is intended to exclude vacant and foreclosed homes, which have grown in number as a result of the national economic downturn. It may also provide an improved real-time measure of participation for areas with large numbers of seasonal homes that are unoccupied on Census Day, April 1.

Find out more about why the Census Bureau is so anxious to speed up its count and the various ways it will measure its success. And explore other aspects of this massive undertaking at our All Things Census page.

D’Vera Cohn, senior writer, Pew Social & Demographic Trends project