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BLOG ACS, Participation  |  September 2023

Understanding the Decline in Census Response Rates: Uncovering Regional Patterns

The importance of an accurate census cannot be overstated. Decennial census counts determine government representation, direct the allocation of federal funds, and inform decision-making at all levels. To ensure a complete and reliable count, the US Census Bureau conducts extensive research and analysis. One crucial aspect of this analysis is the study of response rates to the American Community Survey (ACS), particularly in areas where decennial census participation is lagging.

In Texas, and across the nation, ACS response rates have seen a decline, sparking concerns among researchers, community activists, and organizations like the Texas Census Institute (TxCI). In this blog post, we look at the decline in ACS participation in Texas and explore whether regional patterns have emerged.

ACS response rates in Texas have dropped 12.3%  in a little over 10 years, from 92% in 2010 down to 79.7%  in 2021.

Understanding ACS Response Rates

The American Community Survey (ACS) is a household survey administered by the U.S. Census Bureau and sent to 3.5 million randomly selected households each year. In addition to the fact that the ACS is a vital tool for collecting demographic and socioeconomic data used for various purposes, including policy-making and resource allocation, recipients are legally required to complete the ACS and may be fined up to $5,000 for refusal to do so, although to date no person has ever been prosecuted for refusal to complete the ACS or the census (read about this in the Census FAQs).

The ACS is a vital tool for collecting demographic and socioeconomic data used for various purposes, including policy-making and resource allocation.

The Census Bureau tracks ACS response rates at both the state and county levels, documenting the number of individuals or families who did not participate in the survey, and indicating whether they simply did not return the form or explicitly refused to complete it when contacted by a census enumerator.

Unpacking the Term: Enumerator

Before diving into the regional patterns, let’s clarify the term “enumerator.” A census enumerator is a specially trained individual responsible for collecting data from households and individuals who did not voluntarily respond to the survey. Enumerators play a crucial role in ensuring as many people as possible are accurately counted.

The Quest for More Information

TxCI and other researchers and community activists recognize the significance of understanding response rates in detail. These data are instrumental in planning effective communication and engagement strategies to improve participation in the decennial census; however, the Bureau’s state and county level response rates are either too broad or too granular to provide the data we need to understand patterns and reasons for non response. To deepen our understanding, TxCI’s research department embarked on an exploration of response rates by region.

Identifying Regional Patterns

One of the questions that emerged was whether there are systemic patterns across neighboring counties? Are there useful regional inferences to be made, and could addressing impediments at a regional level be an effective strategy? TxCI’s research yielded four critical insights.

Regional Patterns in ACS Response Rates

We know that since 2010, ACS response rates have declined across all twelve of the state’s economic regions identified by the Texas Comptroller. We found that statewide, among those who did not respond, approximately half did so by refusing to participate, and as it turns out, there were systemic patterns in response rates. Instances of refusal to participate were most notable in West Texas, along the Gulf Coast, and around Austin. Instances of simply failing to return the form were also highest in West Texas, as well as in the Upper Rio Grande Valley and in Central Texas. (For a more granular look at ACS response rates in 2020, see TxCI’s interactive map

Figure 1. ACS Response and Nonresponse Rates in Texas Regions

A Closer Look at Regional Data

ACS response rates in Texas have dropped 12.3% in a little over 10 years,  from 92% in 2010 down to 79.7% in 2021.
The West Texas, Gulf Coast, and Capital regions have the lowest response rates (72.3%, 79.1%, and 79.9%, respectively).
The West Texas, Gulf Coast, and Capital regions have the highest non-response rates by refusal (13.6%, 12.0%, and 11.6%, respectively).
The West Texas, Upper Rio Grande, and Central Texas regions have the highest non-response rates by reasons other than refusal (14.1%, 10.1%, and 9.6%, respectively).

Exploring Further

Now that we know the regions where people are least likely to participate, TxCI’s researchers’ next step is to better understand how low response/high refusal rates intersect with other community characteristics, such as government mistrust or fear, language and communication variances, and cultural differences. Or might low response rates simply be a product of the fact that the Census Bureau cannot deliver to PO Box addresses? By identifying the challenges found at these intersections, TxCI will be able to support strategies to address the specific needs of each region, ultimately leading to improved decennial census participation.

Stay Informed

The accurate and comprehensive collection of census data is a collective responsibility that affects us all. As TxCI continues to investigate and address the decline in response rates, we encourage everyone to stay informed and engaged. The future of our communities and the effective allocation of our resources depend on an accurate census count. Stay tuned for more updates as we work together to ensure a complete and reliable census in Texas and beyond.

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