Census: Keeping Count


Every ten years, the United States Census Bureau conducts a detailed survey of the American population. This count is required by Article 1, Section 2 of the United States Constitution, which states that in order to apportion representatives and direct taxes, the population of each state must be counted. The Census also apportions electors to each state for the Electoral College, and is used to draw legislative districts. 

Given the massive undertaking that this represents, it is no surprise that the Census Bureau is facing increased budget constraints and higher expenses as the population of the United States grows. The Bureau is required to contact each home in America to respond to the survey, and the decennial Census includes all American residents, regardless of immigration status, in the United States, as well as its five territories. 

How It Works

Following the 2010 Census, the Census Bureau, which is a part of the Department of Commerce, began efforts to move the survey online. As a result, 2020 was the first year that those contacted to participate in the Census were asked to do so electronically. Those who did not respond in a timely fashion online were sent a paper version of the survey. The Census can also be completed over the phone. Households that do not respond to these three methods will be contacted by volunteers for the Bureau, who will knock on their doors. These efforts, in particular, were slowed by safety concerns during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Definition: Census 

The Census is a survey conducted every ten years in America and its territories that counts the entire population of residents and gathers specific information about each household. This information includes the number of people who live or are staying in a residence on April 1st of that year; the name, sex, date of birth, and age of the residents; and asks whether or not the home is owned or rented. 

The Census is distinct from the American Community Survey, which is conducted every year, but sent to only a small set of households. The results of both the Census and the American Community Survey are used to determine how federal dollars will be distributed among different community services such as schools and hospitals. 

The History

The Census is required to be conducted by the American Constitution. According to Article 1, the Census is required to determine how many representatives each state will have in the House Representatives and how the Federal government would apportion direct taxes. The number of people in each state, according to the Article, “shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons.” 

The language that refers to “three-fifths of all other persons” was amended by the 14th Amendment when it was ratified in 1868, almost 70 years after the first Census was conducted. Slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment in 1865, and three years later, the 14th Amendment extended the rights contained in the Bill of Rights to formerly enslaved Americans. The Second Article of the 14th Amendment required that all people be counted as whole persons. 

The first Census was conducted by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in 1790, three years after the Constitution was ratified. Since then, it has been conducted once every ten years. However, the Census was conducted by the U.S. Marshal’s Service until after the ninth one in 1870. Through the decades, the number of questions asked by the Census has increased. 

In 1940, due to the volume of the supplemental questions on the Census, the government began using statistical sampling. Instead of asking every person who filled out the Census demographic questions, only about five percent of the population was asked to complete this part of the survey, and nationwide statistics were then extrapolated. This practice ended after the 2000 Census, and now, some demographic information, such as level of educational attainment and ancestry, is recorded on the American Community Survey. 

The individual data collected by the Census is confidential for 72 years. However, during the Second World War, that demographic data was made available to the Federal government, who used it to construct Japanese Internment Camps during the war and German-America and Italian-American Internment Camps after the war. 

One of the demographic indicators that the Census collects is the race of American residents. However, over time the categories that the Census has used to mark race have varied widely. In 1970, the Census added a separate question for Hispanic self identification. Before 1980, the Office of Management and Budget clarified that ethnicity “Hispanic” or “Not Hispanic” was distinct from race.  According to the Census Bureau, this question remains separate from questions that ask about race because people of Hispanic or Latino origin can be of any race. 

Why Care?

Although the results of the Census play an important role in determining certain structures of American democracy, the survey itself remains plagued by critical logistical difficulties. The Census Bureau often undercounts certain populations, especially the homeless, who often do not have regular residences where they can be reached to be counted. Additionally, mistrust among many communities, especially immigrants, results in lower rates of completion of the Census in urban areas. In New York City, for example, the mailed-in response rate for the 2010 Census was only 62 percent, compared to the national average of 79 percent. 

 In 2020, the Trump administration proposed adding a citizenship question to the Census. The Supreme Court ruled that the addition of this question would be unconstitutional. However, the American Community Survey does ask about citizenship status. 

When people choose not to complete the Census, or are unable to do so, their own needs and the needs of their communities are therefore underrepresented at the local, state, and federal levels. The same vulnerable communities who are unable to complete the Census are the ones who need access to the funding and political representation that the results of the Census are supposed to guarantee.

Think Further

  1. Do you think that the Census is the best way to determine the United States population? 
  2. Why might moving the Census online make it easier for people to fill out? 
  3. Can you think of any other groups that might be underserved by the Census?


Get updated about new videos!



Learn More

  1. Bajak, Aleszu, et al. “How the 2020 Census Guides Federal Program Funding in Each State.” Journalist’s Resource, 10 Mar. 2020. journalistsresource.org, https://journalistsresource.org/studies/government/2020-census-federal-state-funding-medicare/.
  2. Bureau, US Census. “Questions Asked on the Form.” 2020Census.Gov. 2020census.gov, https://2020census.gov/en/about-questions.html. Accessed 5 June 2020.
  3. Measuring Race and Ethnicity Across The Decades: 1790—2010 – U.S. Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/data-tools/demo/race/MREAD_1790_2010.html.
  4. “What the Supreme Court’s Census Decision Means (Ep. 52).” American Civil Liberties Union. www.aclu.org, https://www.aclu.org/podcast/what-supreme-courts-census-decision-means-ep-52.