The Failures of the 2020 Census & Suggestions for Census Bureau Reform

In this policy brief, the author informs readers about the current state of the US Census Bureau and the decennial census and gives recommendations for their improvement

Published by


June 23, 2023

Inquiry-driven, this project may reflect personal views, aiming to enrich problem-related discourse.

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Executive Summary

The United States Census Bureau, which exists under the mandate of the Department of Commerce, is responsible for conducting the Decennial Census of Population and Housing. The data collected from the decennial census is used to allocate everything from federal funding to representative seats in Congress. This brief highlights the link between an accurate and reflective census and the equability of American democracy. It also emphasizes the need for the extensive reform of the Title 13 “Census Act” as well as the further allocation of federal funds in order to sustain the efficacy of the Bureau.


Every ten years, the United States Census Bureau conducts a nationwide count of the population. This count, known as the Decennial Census of Population and Housing, may seem like an arbitrary regulatory procedure, but it is in fact the cornerstone of our democracy. As stipulated under Article I, Section 2 of The United States Constitution, taxation and the number of congressional representatives that each state receives in a ten year cycle are directly tied to the size of its populace. In this sense, the decennial census has a very clear impact on the functionality and viability of our democracy, additionally the census plays a key role in the equitability of our democracy. With the data that is collected during the 

count, the census data can positively influence the expansion of federal spending in areas that are in need. Though, census data can also have some less than amicable impacts. Census data is also used to redraw electoral districts at the state level through a process known as redistricting. While seemingly a mundane exercise, redistricting has been long criticized for its splitting of communities, dilution of minority votes, and exacerbation of political gerrymandering. 

Due to its many overarching impacts on the functionality and equitability of our democracy, it should concern every American to hear about the state of the United States Census Bureau and of its latest decennial census. As it currently stands, the Census Bureau has been chronically underfunded by $200 million each year since 2012. In not receiving the proper congressional funding, the Bureau has failed to make necessary behind-the-scenes improvements and advancements in reaching historically undercounted communities (e.g. racial minorities). 

Alongside a lack of monetary support from Congress, The Bureau faces excessive executive involvement (e.g. President Trump’s attempts to include a citizenship question) and outdated legislation (i.e. Title 13 “Census Act”). These factors combined limit the Census Bureau’s efficacy and have led to less than accurate counts (i.e. the relative inaccuracy of the 2020 census). 

Pointed Summary

- The lack of support from Congress and the executive branch leaves little room for The Bureau to produce accurate counts

- The United States decennial census is a vital component in the functionality and equitability of our democracy

- The United States Census Bureau (and by extension the decennial census) is chronically underfunded 


This state of deficit that the Bureau currently finds itself in has leached into the legitimacy of the 2020 census. During the count, 5% (18.8 million Americans) of the population was left uncounted, fourteen states were over or undercounted, and Americans who racially identify as Latino, Native American, and Black were undercounted at exceptionally high rates. And as we have seen, having an incorrect count does not only negatively affect the credibility of the Census Bureau, but the functionality of our democracy. 

Inaccurate population data makes it increasingly difficult to accurately distribute political power and federal funding. In 2020, censual miscounts saw 7 house seats switch among 13 states, meaning that a sizable number of Americans will face inaccurate political representation until the next decennial census. The Latino, Black, and Native American communities who were undercounted by margins of 4.99%, 3.30%, and 5.64% during the 2020 census have now lost their chance to receive their part of demographically allocated federal funds and equal representation for the next decade. If not properly tackled, the decrepit state of the decennial census and the Census Bureau will seriously harm our democracy. 

Current Stances

The Brennan Center for Justice 

On September 13th, 2022 the Brennan Center for Justice published a policy report entitled Improving the Census: Legal and Policy Reforms for a More Accurate, Equitable, and Legitimate Count. The report provides The Bureau, Congress, and the executive branch with 19 proposals to improve not only the functionality of the Census Bureau, but the legitimacy of the decennial census itself. The Institute suggests that a legitimate Census is: 

➢ Scientifically rigorous & democratically accountable 

➢ Equitable and free from race-specific undercounts 

To create a more functioning Census Bureau, the Brennan Center for Justice suggests policy solutions that fall into three main areas: limiting the influence of the executive branch on the decennial census and the Bureau, shoring up legislative and congressional support for the Census Bureau, and improving the execution of the decennial count. Of main interest to this brief are the first two areas, though the third and arguably most impactful area is deserving of its own thorough review. 

To improve The Bureau’s relationship with the executive branch, the Brennan Center researchers suggest (1) a congressional cap on the number of political appointees to the Census Bureau, (2) establishing The Bureau as its own executive agency, (3) barring the addition of untested additions to the census by the executive branch, and (4) removing the president from the congressional census apportionment process. Suggestions (1), (2), and (3), act as a way to ensure the objectivity and autonomy of the Census Bureau, while suggestion (4) seeks to ensure the non-partisan nature of the count. Under current laws, the congressional apportionment (i.e. the division of the 435 house seats among the states in accordance with collected censual data) must pass through the president, who must approve the apportionment before it comes into effect. Brennan Center researchers find this process unnecessary and potentially dangerous as it legally allows the president to alter the apportionment for partisan gain. While no former president has altered the apportionment, there were attempts to do so during the Trump administration. 

In order to shore up congressional support for the decennial census and the Census Bureau, Brennan Center researchers suggest that Congress: (1) create permanent committees and or subcommittees in order to pursue a more rigorous oversight of future census operations, (2) make The Bureau’s budget limits more flexible, and (3) remove outdated and obsolete sections of the Title 13 “Census Act”. 

The Trump Administration 

The lead-up to the 2020 census and the census itself took place during the Trump administration. And while no longer affecting current censual policy, the Trump administration did attempt to alter the function and output of the Census Bureau. 

Leading up to the 2020 decennial Census the Trump administration attempted to add a citizenship question to the census. This question would have asked respondents if they were citizens of the United States. In adding the question to the census, the administration wanted to gauge the number of non-citizens residing within the nation. By suggesting the change to the census, the administration attempted to break with the historical precedent of counting individuals regardless of citizenship status. The administration’s request to alter the census also broke with the historic precedent of research-backed question alteration (i.e. changes in the decennial census questionnaire have historically been tested before being applied). The question was ultimately not added to the 2020 census due to a Supreme Court ruling preventing its ratification. 

The Trump administration broke with precedent again and attempted to alter the congressional apportionment in order to remove illegal aliens from the count. This was ultimately not carried out. Subsequently, the administration placed a number of political appointees within the Census Bureau. 

The Biden Administration 

While the Biden administration has not specifically commented on Census Bureau reform, it has shown interest in improving the relationship between the executive branch and The Bureau. In the 2023 FY presidential budget, the president allocated $408 million worth of funds for the improvement of the decennial census. The administration is also pursuing programs that would improve federal data acquisition.

Tried Policy

The Biden Administration 

From the beginning, the Biden administration has expressed its commitment to equity for marginalized communities. The census, as previously explored, is a beneficial tool for building a more equitable democracy. And thus, the Biden administration has taken a larger interest in the efficacy and output of 

the decennial census and the United States Census Bureau. 

The Biden administration has yet to spearhead any large projects directly involving censual reform, but in the spirit of equity, the administration is indirectly pursuing aims that align with the reform of the decennial census and The Bureau. Soon after taking office, President Biden signed the Executive Order on Ensuring a Lawful and Accurate Enumeration and Apportionment Pursuant to the Decennial Census. This executive order mainly revokes the President Trump era policy that attempted to add a citizenship question to the census and remove non-citizens from the congressional appropriation. This order also seeks to reaffirm the historic precedent of including non-citizens in congressional appropriations. 

The Biden administration’s second project which indirectly involves bureau reform is the recommendations from the Equitable Data Working Group. The group, which was founded during the early days of the administration, seeks to identify problems in federal demographic data acquisition and make recommendations to assess the equitability of federal programs and the diversity of the American public. In the Equitable Data Working Group’s most recent policy recommendation publication, the working group suggests a variety of ways the Census Bureau can be utilized to further the Biden administration's aims. 

H.R.732-2020 Census IDEA Act 

During the 116th Congress (i.e. the congressional session that took place from 2019 to 2020), House representative Carolyn B. Maloney of New York introduced bill H.R.732, otherwise known as the 2020 Census IDEA Act. This act, which was introduced but not voted on, sought to amend Title 13 to include provisions for decennial question alterations introduced by the Secretary of Commerce (i.e. the executive branch). These provisions would not allow the Secretary of Commerce to alter the census questionnaire without the advanced notice and approval of Congress. A stipulation in the bill also mandated that any question-changing proposals would have to be thoroughly researched before being added to the upcoming census. 

Outside of reeling in the executive branch's influence over the Census Bureau, the bill also sought to shore up congressional involvement in the census. Bill H.R.732 also included a framework that would see The Secretary of Congress submit a detailed report on the operational plan of the upcoming census and all research being conducted for the benefit of the decennial census. 

Policy Problem


The foremost affected population in the case of a poorly conducted censual count is the American public. With the data collected during the decennial censuses, over $1.5 Trillion in annual federal funding can be distributed amongst communities across the country. If the data collected is inaccurate, communities in need are likely to receive less funding than necessary. Outside of missing out on federal funding, the American public is civically affected by poor censual counts. The inaccurate federal apportionments that result from poorly conducted counts lessen the public’s ability to be fairly represented. 

Other stakeholders include Congress and the executive branch. Seeing as Congress has the power to change the legislation surrounding the decennial census and Bureau, it would be one of the primary actors in censual reform. Though, the congressional initiative to enact reform may be low, as a total overhaul of Title 13 would require large-scale, non-partisan cooperation in a relatively niche policy area. 

The executive branch, which currently has a large legal influence over the decennial census and the Census Bureau, also has a large stake in the censual reform. Almost any overhaul of legislation or restructuring of The Bureau is sure to see the executive branch lose some of its unchecked power over the running of the census and Bureau. 

Risks of Indifference

The threat that reoccurring inaccurate censuses have to the efficacy and equitability of American democracy is far too great to ignore. The 2030 United States Decennial Census of Population and 

Housing is fast approaching. If not enough action is taken to improve The Bureau’s access to funding, congressional and executive support, or legislative improvements, the systemic issues that plagued the 2020 census will only be exacerbated. 

In the event that these issues are not properly tackled, millions of dollars of federal funding could be misappropriated and House seats could be inaccurately distributed among states.

Nonpartisan Reasoning

Supporting the efficacy of the federal government in order to adhere to the core tenets of the United States Constitution and American democracy should not be a matter of partisanship. The United States Census Bureau plays a vital role in our democracy and that alone should be a basis for cross-party cooperation. 

Furthermore, the risk of future inaccurate censuses limiting the reach of both congressional parties through missapportioned house seats is far too great to ignore.  

Policy Options

The policy suggestions for this brief mostly align with the suggestions outlined by the Brennan Center for Justice. 

Create Permanent Congressional Committees As proposed by the Brennan Center for Justice and by Representative Maloney of New York in her 2020 Census IDEA Act, more congressional oversight of censual operations would help ensure the smooth execution of future decennial censuses. The easiest way for Congress to ensure the future efficacy of The Bureau and decennial census would be by establishing a committee or subcommittee that specifically oversaw census-related affairs. As it currently stands, the Committee on Oversight and Reform oversees censual affairs, though this committee also has jurisdiction over several other federal institutions. This makes getting census-specific issues heard quite hard. It is therefore suggested that a congressional committee or subcommittee be created for the specific purpose of overseeing the United States Census Bureau and the decennial census. 

Increase the Flexibility of the Bureau’s Budget Decade after decade the cost to conduct the decennial census has increased. This combined with the fact that The Bureau has been historically underfunded creates a scenario wherein The Bureau requires more budgetary discretion. In the time leading 2020 census, Congress has asked The Bureau to spend less than the $12.1 billion budgetary cap provided to them for 2010 census. The cap did not account for inflation or the cost that increased outreach operations would incur. This limited the accuracy of the count by way of reducing the number of opportunities there were to reach undercounted communities. To limit the impact the issue of funding has on the decennial census in the future, Congress should allow for a more flexible discretionary budget going forward. 

Updating Title 13 “Census Act” 

The Census Act, which was originally published in 1954, has been updated many times since its legislative debut, but The Act has yet to see a total overhaul. This has led to some of the act’s sections becoming obsolete over time. The obsolescence of some sections of the law has rendered it unreadable and futile to enforce. In order to support the legislative fortification of the Census Bureau an update and overhaul of Title 13 is in order.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The United States Census Bureau and the Decennial Census of Population and Housing make up the bedrock on which our democracy rests. In not adequately protecting these institutions, we inadvertently compromise our ability to exercise the rights enshrined in the United States Consitution.


The Institute for Youth in Policy wishes to acknowledge Gwen Singer, Sarah Zhang, Paul Kramer, Carlos Bindert and other contributors for developing and maintaining the Effective Discourse Department and associated Fellowship programming.


1. USCODE. “TITLE 13—CENSUS,” August 31, 1954. SCODE-2007-title13.pdf. 

2. US Census Bureau. “Why We Conduct the Decennial Census of Population and Housing.”, November 23, 2021. why.html. 

3. Loyola Law School. “Why Should We Care?” All About Redistricting (blog). Accessed April 1, 2023. 

4. Farmer, Alexis. “Funding the Census | Brennan Center for Justice,” March 26, 2018. ensus. 

5. Blake, Aaron. “Analysis | The Audacious Timeline of Trump’s Failed Plot on the Census and Citizenship.” Washington Post, January 20, 2022. 


6. US Census Bureau. “Census Bureau Releases Estimates of Undercount and Overcount in the 2020 Census.”, March 10, 2022. s-estimates-of-undercount-and-overcount.html. 

7. US Census Bureau, and America Counts Staff. “Census Bureau Today Releases 2020 Census Undercount, Overcount Rates by State,” May 19, 2022. 


8. Fong, Clara, and Kelly Percival. “Major Census Quality Check Spotlights Persistent Undercounts | Brennan Center for Justice,” March 15, 2022. nsus-quality-check-spotlights-persistent-undercounts. 

9. Wolf, Thomas, Brianna Cea, Kelly Percival, Madiba Dennie, and Clara Fong. “Improving the Census | Brennan Center for Justice,” March 7, 2023. g-census. 

10. US Census Bureau. “About Congressional Apportionment.”, November 22, 2021. nment/about.html. 

11. The White House. “Remarks by President Trump on Citizenship and the Census – The White House,” July 11, 2019. -president-trump-citizenship-census/. 

12. The White House. “Memorandum on Excluding Illegal Aliens From the Apportionment Base Following the 2020 Census – The White House,” July 21, 2020. 

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13. OFFICE OF MANAGEMENT AND BUDGET. “Budget the U.S. Government YEAR 2023,” n.d. y2023.pdf. 

14. The White House. “Executive Order on Ensuring a Lawful and Accurate Enumeration and Apportionment Pursuant to the Decennial Census.” The White House, January 21, 2021. 1/01/20/executive-order-ensuring-a-lawful-and-accurate-enumerati 


15. The White House. “The Release of the Equitable Data Working Group Report | OSTP.” The White House, April 22, 2022. ease-of-the-equitable-data-working-group-report/. 

16. Equitable Data Working Group. “A Vision for Equitable Data Recommendations from the Equitable Working,” n.d. vision-for-equitable-data.pdf. 

17. Rep. Maloney, Carolyn B. [D-NY-12. “Text - H.R.732 - 116th Congress (2019-2020): 2020 Census IDEA Act.” Legislation, January 23, 2019. 

18. Serbu, Jared. “Senate Passes 2022 Federal Spending Bill, Sends to Biden’s Desk.” Federal News Network, March 11, 2022. 22-federal-spending-bill-sends-to-bidens-desk/. 

19. The White House. “The Structure of the Federal Statistical System.” The White House. Accessed April 6, 2023. 

20. US Census Bureau. “2030 Census.” Accessed April 6, 2023. 

21. United States House Committee on Oversight and Accountability. “About.” United States House Committee on Oversight and Accountability. Accessed April 6, 2023. 

22. The Census Project. “In Census Budget Bills, Words Matter.” The Census Project (blog), August 14, 2017. ds-matter/. 

23. USCODE. “TITLE 13—CENSUS,” August 31, 1954. SCODE-2007-title13.pdf. 

24. Wolf, Thomas, Brianna Cea, Kelly Percival, Madiba Dennie, and Clara Fong. “Improving the Census | Brennan Center for Justice,” March 7, 2023. g-census. 

Lena Diakite

Lena Diakite

Lena Diakite is a college student pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Liberal Arts & Sciences. Her areas of interest mainly focus themselves around International Relations, American Foreign Policy, as well as Economic and Political Demography. Lena is currently based in Freiburg, Germany.

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