Introduction to the US Census Budget

Introduction to the US Census Budget

This is the second blog post in an in-depth series exploring the history and future of the U.S. Census. Explore our first post introducing readers to the history of the census and its importance.

Few people doubt the importance of having an accurate census count every 10 years, and many would not hesitate in advocating for procedures to be put in place to ensure each census performs with a greater deal of accuracy. However, despite popular consensus valuing accuracy, people often forget to realize the tradeoffs that need to be considered when budgeting for the census. In the next three blog posts about the census budget, we will first explore introductory census budget information, discuss the challenges facing the 2020 Census, and examine some of the innovative ideas the Census Bureau is implementing this cycle.

The Census Budget

The Census Bureau’s budget operates significantly different from most government agencies. This is largely because of its cyclical nature, whereas most agencies operate on a mostly consistent annual budget. The Census Bureau does the majority of its spending every 10 years during the actual implementation of the Decennial Census, with the annual budget dropping sharply afterwards and then slowly creeping back up.  The Decennial Census is the largest peacetime mobilization and federal employment spike that the nation sees. 


Complete national censuses are extremely expensive to administer, and the primary function of the Census Bureau is to carry out the official census every 10 years. As will be discussed in future posts, the census counts affect representation in the House of Representatives and is used as a guide to distribute funding and other resources. Although the Census Bureau conducts a host of other surveys and population counts, none are as extensive as the Decennial Census which cannot be watered down because it is constitutionally required.

Because of the constitutional requirement for the census, Congress has less influence than usual in determining the budget for it. This is not to say that Congress is without influence though, as they certainly set the course, especially in regards to the upcoming 2020 Census.

How Expensive Have Past Censuses Been?

The census has historically always been a costly endeavor for the United States; however the cost of executing it has been increasing at a significant rate over the last 50 years. For example, adjusting census costs to 2020 dollars, the 1970 Census cost a total of $1.1 billion to carry out, the following census in 1980 cost a total of $3 billion. In 1990 and 2000 the cost went up to $4.7 billion and $9.4 billion respectively. The dramatic increase in cost is not just attributed to growing population, as the cost per household has been increasing at a similar rate.

Source: The Census Bureau

The 2010 Census

The 2010 Census’ budget increased even more, costing a total of $13 billion, which was the most expensive census ever in real dollars, both in terms of total cost and the cost per household, which was nearly $100. The GAO High Risk report suggests that the cost per household increases has been caused by a decline in census participation by mail, requiring more door to door efforts to obtain accurate counts. The preparation and execution of the 2010 Census required an unrivaled 3.8 million hires which significantly contributed to the cost.

The 2010 Census ended up costing so much that the oversight committee suggested that the fundamental design is no longer capable of delivering a cost-effective headcount given the nation’s diverse trends. This leaves future censuses in a tough situation as they will be forced to adapt the design in order to provide a financially sustainable model that can still produce accurate results.

What are the Cost Estimates for the 2020 Census?

In 2011 the National Research Council examined the tremendous cost of the 2010 Census and gave a recommendation that the 2020 Census should be carried out at a lower cost per household than in 2010. The resulting book, Envisioning the 2020 Census, is a wealth of information for further study of history, budgeting, and statistical developments. They claimed this was a reasonable request due to improving methods of data collection including increased reliance on the internet. A few years later Congress noted that the 2010 Census was so expensive that they decided to set a mandate for the bureau stating that the 2020 Census is not to exceed the cost of 2010. This was the first time a mandate of this kind was set, and created a target budget for 2020 of under $12.5 billion in spending.

Despite the Census Bureau stating they will be able to achieve cost goals, staying below the cost of the 2010 Census both in total cost and cost per household, some people are skeptical. Recently, former Census Bureau director John Thompson raised uncertainty on meeting the estimates, noting that the new Census Enterprise Data Collection and Processing program (CEDCaP) has overrun its cost estimates by over $400 million so far.  Additionally, the GAO’s placement of the 2020 Census on its high risk report indicates a serious concern that the project runs a significant risk of overspending.  The 2020 Census faces many challenges in sticking to the appropriations it received from Congress.  Our next post will discuss those in more detail before exploring some potential solutions.

Census 2020 Blog Posts

  1. What is the Census?
  2. U.S. Census Budget Introduction
  3. 2020 Census Budget Challenges

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