Decennial Census:

1990 Results Show Need for Fundamental Reform

GGD-92-94: Published: Jun 9, 1992. Publicly Released: Jun 10, 1992.

Additional Materials:


L. Nye Stevens
(202) 512-8676


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the planning, implementation, and evaluation of the 1990 census, focusing on the major lessons learned from that census and the opportunities those lessons present for census reform.

GAO found that: (1) the Census Bureau managed the 1990 census on a 10-year cycle, beginning planning in 1984 and ending major data dissemination efforts in 1993; (2) the 1990 census had millions of errors and omissions, a lower accuracy rate than that of the 1980 census, and dramatically escalating costs; (3) the Bureau used redundant, labor-intensive, and costly procedures to develop a list of about 100 million addresses for the 1990 census, but the list's errors and omissions affected both census quality and cost; (4) the Bureau could improve its address list for the 2000 census by building on its 1990 list and increasing its reliance on the U.S. Postal Service; (5) the census mail response rate was only 67 percent, down from 75 percent in 1980, and the continued downward trend in public cooperation affects census costs and quality; (6) the Bureau may be able to increase public cooperation by simplifying the questionnaire and modifying the census in response to social changes; (7) census follow-up efforts were costly, time consuming, and error prone, due to the unanticipated workload and staffing and schedule problems, and the quality of enumerations declined with extended data collection efforts; (8) the Bureau could improve its follow-up efforts by preparing for a lower response rate, evaluating its use of sampling, assessing coverage improvement strategies, and developing alternative methodologies; and (9) the Bureau's census redesign effort appears to be open to a wide range of participants and ideas, but reform will require strong and thorough planning efforts.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The report stressed that the key to a successful census is vigorous and consistent congressional oversight, beginning early and continuing throughout the decade. Since 1992, Congress has held a number of hearings on the design and planning of the 2000 Census. Topics included the major opportunities for reform identified by GAO-improving address list development efforts, addressing the declining response rate, and minimizing the cost and length of field followup efforts-as well as using alternative census-taking methods to reduce the undercount, and the Bureau's efforts to count Americans living overseas, among other topics. GAO testified at many of these hearings. Moreover, GAO's regular briefings for Congress on the Census Bureau's progress in implementing key census-taking operations has assisted congressional oversight of the census as well.

    Matter: Congress may wish to maintain a schedule of oversight hearings throughout the decade to ensure that consistent progress is being made in designing and planning the 2000 census. Topics for oversight hearings should include the extent to which the Bureau is making timely progress and appropriate decisions on the major opportunities for reform identified in this report: (1) improving address list development efforts; (2) addressing the declining response rate; and (3) minimizing the cost and length of follow-up efforts.


Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Nov 23, 2020

Nov 18, 2020

Nov 16, 2020

Oct 7, 2020

Sep 25, 2020

Sep 23, 2020

Sep 10, 2020

Sep 8, 2020

Looking for more? Browse all our products here