The U.S. Constitution mandates that a census or count of the population be conducted every 10 years. The 2020 Census consists of 11 quick and easy questions per household member. In between each decennial census, the U.S. Census Bureau conducts more than 100 surveys of households and businesses across the nation each year. A full list of the bureau’s surveys can be found on their website.
One of the surveys that is often confused with the decennial census is the American Community Survey (ACS). This annual survey reaches one out of every 480 households each year and asks very detailed questions on topics such as employment, income, housing, and place of birth.
State and local governments use data from both the decennial Census and the ACS to plan and fund such things as school construction, transportation systems, public housing, policy and fire precincts, and future utility needs. Participation in both the decennial census and the ACS is required by law.
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Why we ask [PDF]
The Census Bureau collects data for statistical purposes only. It combines your responses with information from other households or businesses to produce statistics, which never identify your household, any person in your household, or your business. Your information is confidential. By law, the Census Bureau will never identify you individually.
Title 13 of the U.S. Code protects the confidentiality of all your information and violating this law is a crime with severe penalties. In addition, other federal laws, including the Confidential Statistical Efficiency Act and the Privacy Act, reinforce these protections. The penalty for unlawful disclosure is a fine of up to $250,000 or imprisonment of up to 5 years, or both.
Read more about the Census Bureau's legal requirements to safeguard the confidentiality of your responses and your obligations under Title 13.
The U.S. Census Bureau will never ask for:
If a field representative comes to your home, he or she will always have official Census ID.
The general rule of thumb is to count people at their usual residence, which is defined as the place where they live and sleep most of the time. Still, in today’s world where everyone is on the go, sometimes that simple definition is not enough. See the document below for answers to many questions about how and where to count: people away from their residence on census day; people who live or stay in more than one place; college students; people in health care facilities; foreigners and visitors; U.S. military; homeless; and so many more residency situations.
More complex answer: Respond when contacted the first time – if only to save taxpayers’ funds.
If you are living in the United States, you are legally required to respond to the U.S. Census and could be subject to a fine or limited prison term for non-compliance or false answers. However, the U.S. Census Bureau is not a prosecuting agency; and failure to provide information is unlikely to result in a fine. Instead, Census Bureau staff work to achieve cooperation and high response rates by helping the public understand that responding to the Census is a matter of civic responsibility and that data from the census has benefits that span across government, industry, and profession.
Moreover, your quick response to the Census will ensure cost-efficiency in the use of taxpayer funds for the conduct of the Census. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated that, in 2010, it cost the Census Bureau approximately $0.42 per housing unit if the household returned the survey that they received in the mail. On the other hand, if the initial survey was not answered, the Census Bureau had to spend another $98 per housing unit (or $57 per person) to collect the data.
So help the Census Bureau keep its costs down—and save the taxpayers’ dollars—by responding to the first mail contact.
For the 2020 Census, you can respond online, by mail, by phone, or through an in-person interview.
Starting in March 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau will begin to contact households through a series of mailings:
The Self-Response Mail Strategy from the 2018 end-to-end test is a good graphic illustration of how the process of Internet First and Internet Choice will look.
If you do not respond to these mailings, then beginning in early May 2020, U.S. Census Bureau will send enumerators out to knock on the doors of households who have not yet responded. This operation, called Non-Response Follow-Up (NRFU), will begin on April 9 for colleges and universities in order to capture student data before the spring term ends.
The U.S. Census Bureau will make the census questionnaire and other materials available in multiple languages based on its understanding of populations in the United States with limited English-speaking households.
The Census questionnaire will be available in Spanish as a print version, as well as on the enumerators’ tablets as options when doing field enumeration.
When responding online, the Internet Self-Response Instrument will be available in 12 non-English languages, which include Spanish, Chinese (Simplified), Vietnamese, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Tagalog, Polish, French, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, and Japanese.
The Census Bureau will provide Census Questionnaire Assistance by phone in 12 non-English languages, including Spanish, Chinese (Simplified), Vietnamese, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Tagalog, Polish, French, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, and Japanese, as well as in American Sign Language.
The U.S. Census Bureau will also produce a glossary of census terms, a card for enumerators to identify the language of the household, and video and print guides will be available in the 59 non-English languages listed below:
For populations that speak languages beyond the 59 supported languages, the U.S. Census Bureau plans to create video shells and print templates for adaptation.
Below is a useful graphic to summarize the non-English language support:
As we get closer to Census 2020, The Washington State Office of Financial Management [OFM] will add FAQs with details of the process for the upcoming count. If you have additional specific questions, please email Lisa McLean, Complete Count Coordinator, at Lisa.McLean@ofm.wa.gov