September 13, 2022
The census is a cornerstone of American democracy. The results of this constitutionally required, once-a-decade count of every person living in the United States dictate how seats in the House of Representatives are divided among the states, how state and local governments draw electoral districts, and how more than $1.5 trillion annually in federal funds is distributed for essential services such as health care, food assistance, and education. At its best, the census offers an authentic picture of who we are as a diverse and growing nation.The 2020 census struggled. It faced a barrage of obstacles, from executive interference to chronic underfunding to the Covid-19 pandemic. In the face of these challenges, it ultimately failed to reach 18.8 million people — more than 5 percent of the country's population. What's more, the census once again disproportionately undercounted people of color, with the Latino undercount rate more than tripling from the prior decade. And multiple states were undercounted by significant margins. These inaccuracies compromise the census's ability to fairly distribute political power and federal funding both across states and across communities, undercutting the democratic promise of our political system. Meanwhile, overall census response rates remain stuck in a rut, costs are rising, and the bureau's reliance on labor-intensive door-to-door outreach is showing its limits. The census is too critical to continue in this precarious state.This paper sets forth a blueprint for reforming the law and policy of the decennial population count. Our goal is to make future censuses more accurate, equitable, and legitimate. An accurate census correctly captures the number and demographic characteristics of all people residing in the country. An equitable census is designed, funded, and run to count all groups precisely and to distribute political power and economic support commensurate with each community's fair share. A legitimate census — one that is scientifically rigorous and democratically accountable and boasts universal participation — warrants and inspires widespread trust. Legitimacy and accuracy require equity; an equitable census is free from the long-running tendency to undercount Black, Latino, and Native American communities in comparison with white ones, inspiring confidence in its fundamental fairness.