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2020 Census Group Quarters

March 16, 2021
By Deborah Stempowski, assistant director for Decennial Census Programs, Operations and Schedule Management, and James Christy, assistant director for Field Operations

As we continue processing 2020 Census results, we’d like to provide more information on how we count people living in group quarters (GQs), such as nursing homes, military barracks and college/university student housing. We faced particular challenges in this operation related to the COVID-19 pandemic and had to make adjustments as the 2020 Census progressed last year.

We have briefly described some of the changes we made and anomalies we’ve found in earlier blogs. Today we’ll share more details on how we typically count people living in group quarters, what we did to adapt data collection and how we’re resolving some data processing issues.

Group Quarters 101

The place where most people in the United States live is something we call a “housing unit.” Typically, this includes dwellings such as houses, apartments and mobile homes.

However, not everyone lives in a housing unit. Roughly 3% of the population lives in group quarters, and some people have no fixed address at all.

Each decade, we conduct multiple operations to ensure we count people who live in places other than housing units. The group quarters operation is central to this process.

Group quarters are defined as places where people live or stay in a group living arrangement that is owned or managed by an organization providing housing and/or services for the residents.

GQs differ from typical household living arrangements because the people living in them are usually not related to one another. Group quarters include such places as college residence halls, residential treatment centers, skilled nursing facilities, group homes, military barracks, prisons and worker dormitories. 

GQs are located across the United States and Puerto Rico. They exist in urban and rural areas. For the 2020 Census, we contacted over 271,000 group quarters to make sure we counted everyone living in a GQ.

How We Count Group Quarters

To count people living in group quarters, we break up the operation into two parts – conducting an “advance contact” and then counting the residents.

In early 2020, our field staff contacted each GQ by phone or in person to prepare for counting its residents. We developed the list of GQs to contact by using information from previous operations, from information collected in our work with state and local governments and from canvassing communities for new places people might live. The objective of this “advance contact” was to:

  • Verify the GQ name, address, contact name and phone number.
  • Collect an expected population count for April 1, 2020 (the reference day for the census).
  • Determine which method the GQ preferred for counting its residents, and whether it could electronically send us a data file to count its residents.
  • Agree upon a date and time to conduct the enumeration.

For the actual enumeration, we offered the GQs a few response options:

  • eResponse. The GQ electronically transfers data to the Census Bureau in a standardized template.
  • Paper-based. The GQ submits a paper listing (facility administrative records with resident information) to our field staff or census takers drop off and pick up completed individual census questionnaires.
  • In-person. Census takers conduct in-person interviews with residents of the GQ to complete their individual census questionnaires.

We completed the operation’s advance contact phase in February 2020 and were well positioned to begin the GQ enumeration in April 2020. However, the COVID-19 pandemic shifted our plans.

COVID Impact

We temporarily suspended 2020 Census field operations on March 18, 2020, in response to the emerging pandemic. As the pandemic continued, it became clear that we needed to adjust our plans for enumerating group quarters. 

Two key factors complicated our plans:

  • Many of the people living in GQs, such as college students, were no longer on-site to complete a paper form. 
  • Census Bureau staff couldn’t visit to carry out the in-person and paper-based options in facilities such as nursing homes or prisons because of pandemic-related restrictions. 

In the weeks that followed, we recontacted administrators who had selected a paper-based method to ask them to consider submitting an eResponse or a paper listing to minimize in-person contact.

We launched our eResponse option as scheduled in April 2020 and kept it open through the conclusion of field data collection. Because of the pandemic, we pushed back the start of our in-person GQ work to July 1 and completed these activities on September 3.

We are especially grateful for the tremendous support we received from GQ administrators. Despite dealing with enormous challenges of their own, most found time to complete the 2020 Census for their facilities.

Service-Based Enumeration

Another aspect of the GQ operation is counting people who receive services from shelters, soup kitchens and mobile food vans, as well as those living in certain outdoor locations and other places where people are known to sleep.

The original plan was to conduct these operations between March 30 and April 1 at a date and time the service providers chose. After the onset of the pandemic, we contacted the service providers again to adapt our plans to count the populations they serve.

Based on the advice of stakeholders and experts, we shifted the timing for these operations to Sept. 22-24. (In a limited number of locations, we shifted the count of outdoor locations to Sept. 25 because of curfews in place.) We completed these activities successfully with the help and support of the service providers.

Review Process

As we began our post-data collection processing, our reviews found several issues that we needed to address. While most group quarters provided sufficient information, there were some that did not.

We identified gaps and inconsistencies in the information that was provided – things like partial responses, missing information or duplicate people in the same GQ (for example, students listed in more than one dorm on a college campus). We made the decision to recontact over 10,000 group quarters to collect additional information or to confirm the information we had collected.

From Dec. 10 to Dec. 21, 2020, staff in our field offices across the nation, at our National Processing Center, and at Census Bureau headquarters contacted thousands of group quarters. Because of this effort, we were able to validate information we collected and fill in missing items. 

Where information was still missing, we used count imputation to fill in the gaps. Imputation is a statistical technique that fills in missing information with other available information.

We have used count imputation for many censuses to fill in missing population counts for households but had not planned to use it for group quarters. In future blogs we will share more information about how we used imputation for GQs, including how much imputation was needed to complete the GQ count. We’ll also talk more about other operational metrics we plan to release. We plan to share a few metrics on GQs along with the first results from the census, and we’ll share more in the months that follow.

Although last year was full of challenges for the nation and for the census, we adapted and improved our plans to count people living in GQs.

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