OPINION1 July 2019

The bread and butter of American decision-making

North America Opinion Public Sector Trends

Following last week’s Supreme Court ruling on the 2020 US census citizenship question, Howard Fienberg of the Insights Association outlines the vital importance of the decennial count to both the insights industry and the country as a whole.

graphical US map overlaid with speech bubbles and faces

The US Supreme Court decision in Department of Commerce v State of New York last week is but the latest drama in a decade-long play. This play’s final act will determine the accuracy and reliability of insights generation in the decade to follow.

On 27 June, the Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the decennial census questionnaire. The citizenship question worried the marketing research and data analytics industry because it had been insufficiently tested and its inclusion would likely have decreased response rates among predominantly Latino immigrant households (both legal and illegal), as well as among members of native tribes, imperiling the accuracy of census data. The research cited by commerce department to claim minimal impact from the question, including research from Nielsen, was determined by the Supreme Court to actually demonstrate the opposite.

Census data guides the allocation of more than $880bn a year in US federal funding, and is the bread and butter for American decision-making. As elaborated by the Insights Association and 24 other companies and associations in an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case: “Businesses have long used census data in a variety of strategic ways to plan their operations, enhance their understanding of their customer base, and develop products that meet consumer needs.” Therefore: “inaccurate census data would weaken the ability of businesses to adapt their marketing and outreach strategies to a changing population, resulting in wasted dollars for businesses and unwanted advertising for customers.”

While the constitution requires a decennial census for purposes of apportioning Congressional districts, the founders figured out that it presented a perfect opportunity to regularly learn more about their nation on a regular basis, so they started adding more questions. It grew so much that, when statistical sampling came of age, we moved the extra questions to a separate Long Form that only went to a small percentage of the population.

The Long Form became the ongoing American Community Survey (ACS) in the 2000s, sampling 10% of the population over 10 years. The ACS has thus supplanted the decennial census as a day-to-day driver of the insights industry, as most marketing research and data analytics professionals rely directly upon fresh ACS data for statistical validation and benchmarking once the decennial is a few years old. However, even the ACS cannot be conducted without the decennial as a benchmark for its sampling. That’s why our industry still depends on the most accurate decennial possible.

Even without the controversial citizenship question, the 2020 census still faces plenty of challenges. While the Census Bureau aims for a 100% accounting of the population every 10 years, our nation rarely achieves that goal. Hard-to-count populations and areas are normally undercounted, which is why we end up having to spend so much money to boost response rates from them. Years of underfunding by Congress and the White House forced the Census Bureau to cancel most of its field testing, including crucial tests in rural areas, native American reservations and Spanish-speaking areas.

Most recently, the White House proposed two million dollars less than the Bureau needs for the 2020 fiscal year, impeding the communications and outreach campaigns and the massive hiring of staff needed for America’s largest peacetime mobilisation. Congress looks likely to resort to continuing funding for the whole federal government at current levels for FY2020, putting the 2020 census in serious jeopardy.

Despite the president’s recent suggestion, the decennial census cannot be delayed or rerun, and all the way back to the first census in 1790, the count has never been delayed or cancelled, even during wars. The decennial also has legally- and technically-required deadlines to follow and playing catch-up can be detrimental and ultimately expensive. So, the Insights Association will continue to advocate for the most accurate census possible, to help our members develop the best American insights for their clients.

Howard Fienberg is vice-president of advocacy for the Insights Association