2020 Census: How one Supreme Court decision could undermine a decade of critical marketing data
The Supreme Court is expected to rule this week on whether it would be constitutional for the federal government to add a "citizenship" question to the U.S. Census for the first time since 1950. Make no mistake, this is a critical decision that will affect all business, advertising and media decisions over the next decade.
The U.S. Census is the holy grail of population statistics, offering the largest source of data around American demographics and the economy. It informs virtually every investment and strategic decision that we, as agencies, make on behalf of our clients.
But, as it stands, the 2020 Census is at a high risk of failure. First and foremost, the addition of a citizenship question could result in a major undercount. Beyond that, a severely slashed budget, reduced field force of Census workers and the poor application of technology compound the risk of ending up with low-quality, inaccurate data on which we will be forced to depend for the next 10 years.
The issue with a citizenship question
2020 marks the first time in 70 years that The Department of Justice, on behalf of the Trump administration, has requested the addition of a citizenship question on the Census. Given the current political climate, the citizenship question is expected to depress responses from those living in immigrant communities or in households with non-U.S. citizens, due to distrust around how the information will be used and for what purpose. There is a fear around negative ramifications, such as deportation.
The Population Reference Bureau estimates that the citizenship question has the potential to result in an undercount of one in 10 U.S. households, which equates to more than 14 percent of the population (nearly 45 million people). What’s more, because nearly one in five children under of the age of five live in a household with at least one non-citizen, the undercount risk is particularly prevalent among young children.
The great irony is that an undercount of this kind would directly impact our ability to collect quality data around multicultural populations, who represent the greatest opportunity for marketers. According to a recent study from Claritas,“virtually all of the growth now and into the foreseeable future will emanate from groups other than the traditional ‘majority’ Non-Hispanic White population.”
That same study cites that Hispanics (the largest multicultural ethnic cohort) spend more money on categories including apparel, cleaning products and food, than average U.S. households. This is a subset of the national population that marketers cannot afford to ignore, yet the citizenship question is putting us at risk of being left without the data we need to properly market to them.
Compounded by minimal resources and poor use of technology
Census Bureau research strongly suggests that the citizenship question “would lead to lower self-response rates in households potentially containing non-citizens, resulting in higher fieldwork costs” stemming from necessary in-person follow ups to each household to verify information.
However, Congress mandated that this year’s census should cost no more than the 2010 Census, and the Trump administration has slashed the budget even more (+10 percent) on top of that. This may be the first Census to have a lower budget than the preceding one. To reconcile costs, the Census Bureau has cut the Census worker field force from 750,000 (2010) to 525,000 (2020). And so, despite the fact that in-person verification will be more important than ever for this Census, there will be 30% fewer people on the ground to ensure the accuracy of the data.
Another irony is that 2020 could have been the year that technology enabled an improved Census process. Instead, poor application of technology actually poses greater risk than reward. An example: the Census is relying on satellite mapping technology to verify addresses in 2020 and there is growing concern this will not be able to capture households accurately in rural areas—which, again, will require in-person address-verification follow-ups from Census workers. As the South and West regions of the nation are comprised of the fastest-growing counties in the U.S., it’s critically important that we survey these areas correctly.
Finally, while the Census form will be distributed by mail with the option of filling it out digitally, no app will be made available to Census-takers, and no information around a mobile-compatible component has been made available. In an era where consumers spend more time on mobile devices than ever before, a mobile component or development of an app should have been at the top of the Census priority list.
Preparing for the fallout
Our industry understands the peril that the 2020 Census is in: the 4A’s, AAF, ANA and ARF have already written to the Department of Commerce to express opposition to the citizenship question. And Nielsen’s CEO David Kenny recently took to The New York Times to issue his plea for the American government not to “mess with the Census.” Now we need to prepare for the consequences.
In the event that the Supreme Court rules the addition of the citizenship question constitutional, the demographic information that we use to make all data-driven marketing decisions would be incorrect for the next years. In a perfect world, industry bodies, agencies, marketers and research firms alike could come together to create a new, objective initiative to collect national demographic information. But this would require significant funding, resources, time and, of course, consumer buy-in.
In the meanwhile, we need to prepare to shift our reliance from census data to new, different data sets. We can look to all the alternate sources we can find—including independent research, behavioral sciences, digital signals and focus groups—to make decisions around reaching consumers. But until the Census is re-evaluated or a new mandatory database is built, we must accept that we will be fighting an uphill data battle for the next decade.