As the federal government gears up for its decennial count of the country’s population, most Americans think the census is very important and say they will definitely participate. But acceptance of and enthusiasm for the census are not universal. Certain segments of the population such as younger people, Hispanics and the less well educated are not as familiar with the census and are less inclined to participate. In addition, there are partisan differences in opinions about the value of the census, and in personal willingness to participate.
The national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press was conducted Jan. 6-10 among 1,504 adults reached on cell phones and landlines. This is the first in a series of studies about the public’s knowledge of and attitudes toward the 2010 U.S. Census.
The survey finds that nine-in-ten Americans describe the census as either very (60%) or somewhat (30%) important for the country, and about eight-in-ten say they will either definitely (58%) or probably (23%) participate. But 8% describe the census as unimportant for the country, and twice that number says that they either “might or might not” participate (10%) or definitely or probably will not (6%). The share saying they may not participate is particularly high among younger Americans, as well as those in lower socio-economic categories.
Most Americans are at least somewhat familiar with the census: 84% have heard of “the United States Census” without any description, and another 8% recognize it when it is described as the count of all people who live in the United States. Awareness of the census is a critical factor in views about participation. Among the 16% who say they either will not or may not participate in the census, 39% have not heard of the census in the first place. More broadly, the poll finds that a lack of familiarity with the census and its goals is a far more important factor driving intention to participate than are concerns about privacy or political considerations.
Most Americans are aware that the census is used to decide how many representatives each state will have in Congress (64%) and how much money communities will get from the government (59%). About two-thirds (68%) correctly say that the census is not used to locate illegal immigrants so they can be arrested, though 11% incorrectly believe that it is used for this purpose. However, only 31% of Americans are aware that participation in the census is required by law. Nearly half (46%) believe that it is not required, and 23% say they don’t know.
Awareness of the Census
Unfamiliarity with the census is most widespread among younger and Hispanic Americans. Roughly a third of each (31% of 18-29 year olds, 33% of Hispanics) say they have not heard of the U.S. Census, and 17% of each group say they are still unfamiliar with it even when it is described as the count of all people living in the country.
Recognition of the census increases with age – 85% of those 30 to 49 have heard of the U.S. Census, as have 92% of those 50 to 64 and 91% of people age 65 and older. More than three-quarters of African Americans (78%) and 88% of whites have heard of the U.S. Census.
Familiarity is also closely linked to education and income. One-in-four Americans (25%) with no more than a high school degree have not heard of the U.S. Census, and 13% still do not recognize it after it is described. The proportions are identical among people with household incomes under $30,000. By contrast, 97% of college graduates recognize the U.S. Census, as do 96% of people with family incomes of $75,000 or more.
While Republicans are less committed to participating in the census and rate it as less important than do Democrats, this is not out of a lack of familiarity with it. Republicans are slightly more likely than Democrats (89% vs. 83%) to have heard of the U.S. Census.
When asked whether they had seen or heard anything about the census within the last month or so, fewer than half (44%) say they have. There are some demographic differences, similar to those in overall awareness of the census. Younger Americans, those with lower educational attainment and those with lower family incomes are less likely than others to have seen or heard anything recently.
Most Say Census is Important for the Country
Sixty percent of Americans say the census is very important for the nation, 30% describe it as somewhat important, with 8% saying either it is not too (5%) or not at all (3%) important.
Younger Americans, who are less likely to have heard of the census, are also the least convinced of its importance. Fewer than half (45%) of those younger than 30 say the census is very important for the country, compared with nearly two-thirds (64%) of those age 30 and older. But young people do not discount the census entirely – just 10% say it is not important. Instead, young people are more likely than older Americans to describe the census as “somewhat” important.
There is a significant partisan gap in ratings of the importance of the census. While 71% of Democrats say the count is very important, just 56% of Republicans agree. Instead, Republicans are more likely to rate it as somewhat important (36% vs. 24% of Democrats); few in either party (5% of Republicans, 4% of Democrats) say it is not important. Independents are about as likely as Republicans to rate the census as very important for the country (54%). One-in-ten (10%) independents say it is not important.
There is little difference of opinion about the importance of the census along educational or income lines: Roughly equal numbers of higher and lower income Americans, as well as those with more and less education, rate the census as very important for the country.
But perceptions of the importance of the census do vary by race and ethnicity. More than seven-in-ten African-American (74%) and Hispanic (72%) respondents rate the census as very important for the country. Far fewer whites (57%) agree.
As with ratings of the importance of the census, age is the strongest correlate of participation. Just 36% of Americans younger than 30 say they will definitely participate. That is equal to the 36% who say they either might or might not take part (22%), or probably or definitely will not participate (14%). One factor may be that some young people still living with parents or relatives may not be required to fill out a form personally.
While Hispanics are more likely than whites to rate the census as very important for the country, they are less certain about whether they will participate. Just under half (47%) of Hispanics say they definitely will fill out and mail the forms, compared with 57% of blacks and 61% of whites.
Education and income are also powerful correlates. Roughly three-quarters (73%) of college graduates say they definitely will send in their forms, compared with about half (49%) of those who have not attended college. The divide is equally large between people in households with incomes of $75,000 or more and those with incomes below $30,000; 75% of the former say they will definitely send in their forms compared with 50% of the latter.
There is also a clear political divide in expected participation: Two-thirds (67%) of Democrats say they will definitely mail in their forms, compared with 54% of both Republicans and independents.
What Drives Nonparticipation
For the most part, people who lean against participating in the census do so based on practical, not principled, considerations. The main reasons people offer for not taking part in the census have more to do with their lack of personal interest and awareness of the process than with privacy or political concerns.
When the small minority (6%) of Americans who say they definitely or probably will not participate in the census are asked why, most say it is mainly because they will be too busy or aren’t interested or because they don’t know much about the census or haven’t participated in it before. Far fewer cite concerns about the government or the census or say they worry about their personal privacy. Based on the overall population, these kinds of privacy or political concerns are raised by only about 2% of Americans.
A lack of awareness of the census is clearly an important factor in participation. Nationwide, 16% of Americans say they have not heard of the U.S. Census, and expected participation within this subgroup is particularly low. While 65% of Americans who have heard of the census say they will definitely take part, just 25% of those who have not heard of it say the same. Instead, many who have not heard of the census say they might or might not (25%) or definitely or probably will not (17%) take part.
In other words, 39% of Americans who say that they will not or might not participate have not heard of the U.S. Census. And even when reminded that the census is a count of all the people who live in the United States, 26% still had not heard of it. By contrast, just 10% of people who said they would definitely or probably participate did not recognize the census when first mentioned, and that falls to 4% when the census is described.
A multivariate analysis was used to better understand which factors matter most in predicting participation in the census. By far, age was the most important predictor of intention to participate, all other things being equal. But party affiliation, education and income also were significant predictors in the analysis. Race, ethnicity and gender were not significantly related to intended participation in the census, after controlling for other demographic characteristics.
Younger Americans are less likely than older people to say they definitely will participate, even when controlling for other demographic characteristics. For those younger than 30, the probability of saying they will definitely fill out the census form is .40, compared with a probability of .75 for those 50 and older when all other variables are held constant at their mean. There also is a partisan divide in intention to participate; all other things being equal, the probability of Democrats saying they definitely will participate is .75 while the probability for Republicans is .56.
Those with lower educational attainment and lower family incomes also are less likely to say they definitely will complete the census form. The probability of definitely participating for those with a high school education or less is .56 compared with a probability of .74 for those with a college degree. Similarly, the probability of saying they definitely will participate is .61 for those with family incomes of less than $30,000 while those with incomes of $75,000 or more have a probability of .77, when all other variables are held constant at their means.
Most Unaware that Census Participation is Required
When asked about what the census is used for, a majority of the public knows that the census is used to decide how many representatives each state will have in Congress (64%), but 20% say it is not used for this and 17% are unsure. Similarly, 59% say the census is used to decide how much money communities will get from the government, while the rest say it is not used for this purpose (21%) or that they are unsure (20%).
Awareness of how census information is used divides along age and educational lines. Younger Americans are less likely than older Americans to know that the census is used to decide the number of congressional representatives and how much money communities will receive from the government. Similarly, those with a high school education or less are less likely than those with some college education to know the census is used for these purposes. Knowledge about whether the census is used to decide the number of representatives each state has in Congress also varies across partisan lines; Republicans (71%) are more likely than Democrats (61%) and independents (64%) to know the census is used for this.
About two-thirds (68%) of the public correctly says that the census is not used to locate illegal immigrants so they can be arrested, but 11% incorrectly believe that it is used for this purpose and 20% are unsure. Hispanics (12%) are no more likely than non-Hispanic whites (10%) or non-Hispanic blacks (18%) to say incorrectly that the census is used to locate illegal immigrants. Similar to the other knowledge questions, there also differences by age and education.
Nearly half (46%) of Americans incorrectly believe that participation in the census is not required by law; only 31% correctly say that their participation is required and 23% don’t know. Only 15% of those younger than 30 think that participation is required, compared with 27% of those ages 30 to 49 and 41% of those 50 and older. College graduates are more likely than those with less education to know that filling out the census is required.
Knowledge about the census also has a direct effect on the likelihood of participation. Those who correctly know what the census is and is not used for, as well as those who know it is required by law, are much more likely to say they will definitely participate, even after controlling for demographic characteristics.