Census 2020 – What is the Census?

What is the Census?

Every 10 years in the United States the decennial census takes place. The census is a constitutionally-mandated count of all of the people currently living in the country. Almost every government program you can think of is budgeted based on the census, as is our representation in Congress. The census is one of the nation’s most useful sources of data, but very few people spend more than ten minutes a decade thinking about it. This blog will review the history of the US Census and what it might look like in 2020.

History of the US Census

18th Century

The first US Census took place in 1790 under the leadership of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. The survey itself was conducted by the US Marshals and hired enumerators (who were paid $1 for every 50 people they recorded), and took place in the original 13 states and the territories of Kentucky, Maine, Vermont, and Tennessee. Questions on the first census were the number of free white males aged under 16 and over 16, number of free white females, number of other free persons, and number of slaves in each household. Only the names of the head of the household were listed. This remained the standard until
1850, when every name in a household was recorded.

19th Century

Census questions changed after the Civil War. In 1870, there were five different question forms handed out: one asking about the General Population, Mortality, Agriculture, Products of Industry, and Social Statistics. These additional forms were meant to gather more detailed information about the United States’ economy as it was going through a period of great change.

The year 1890 was another significant year for the census, as it was the first in which an electronic tabulation system was used to count all of the results (pictures). The machine was designed by a census employee, Herman Hollerith, and was designed to reduce the time it took to tabulate the 1880 Census, nearly a decade! Hollerith would eventually form a company to sell his tabulation machine in 1896, and almost 20 years later it became known as the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM).

20th Century

After the 1900 Census, the Census Office was granted permanent status as the Census Bureau, in an attempt to reduce the number of statistical offices scattered throughout the governmental bureaucracy. The 1910 Census saw the official Census Day pushed back from June 1st to April 18th, to make sure summer vacations didn’t impact census counts. Data drawn from this census was used in 1917 to compile a report on the population of draft-age men, in preparation for the United States’ entry into WWI.

The 1920 Census is unique in that it is the only census in which a reapportionment of the House of Representatives did not take place after the results were tabulated. Information about place of residence from this census had revealed that half of all Americans now lived in cities, and rural representatives in Congress were afraid of losing their political influence. In 1929, Congress passed the Reapportionment Act, which set Congress at 435 members and established a permanent plan for reapportionment after future censuses (A future blog post will discuss redistricting and reapportionment in more depth). Reapportionment did not take place until 1933.

The 1930 Census had its own issues due to the Great Depression. The Census Bureau was asked to report data on unemployment quicker than it had expected, and the result was an underestimate of the unemployment rate. Outcry over the number being too low led to the first instance of the Bureau using statistical sampling, where a special census detailing only unemployment was sent out in 1931.

To better understand the effects of various New Deal programs, the 1940 Census was distributed as two separate questionnaires; one asking for demographic information and the other housing information. Sampling was used in the formation of preliminary results reports, which allowed data to be released 8 months ahead of schedule.

Advancements in the census over the past 60 years have focused mainly on the introduction of new questions and changes in data collection and analysis. A summary of the major changes by decade can be found below.

  • 1950: The first census to be tabulated by a computer (it weighed 16,000 pounds!)

  • 1960: The first census in which respondents recorded their answers primarily by mail-in forms

  • 1970: The introduction of a question regarding Hispanic origin

  • 1980: The development of single-day sweeps of homeless shelters and hotels

  • 1990: The use of computer programs to create maps assisted data collection efforts

  • 2000: The ability to respond via the internet

  • 2010: Eliminated long-form Census in favor of the American Community Survey which allows for continual data collection throughout the decade.

How Will the 2020 Census Be Conducted?

The 2020 Census hopes to be the first to collect its response mostly online. While mail-in forms will still be sent out, the Bureau expects over 50% of the population to take a few minutes to fill out the census online. For those who do not submit a census form, enumerators will still be sent out into the community to count, but due to budget constraints there will be half as many field offices for enumerators during this census. Questions for the 2020 Census will not be known until 2018. Subjects were released in March 2017. They include age, gender, race/ethnicity, relationship, and housing tenure (owner/renter).

Also in 2018 will be the End-to-End Test of census operations, a small-scale census that is meant to test the methods that will be utilized in the decennial census. As of right now, these tests are scheduled to take place in rural, suburban, and urban areas of the country (Bluefield-Beckley-Oak Hill, West Virginia; Pierce County, Washington; and Providence County, Rhode Island), but due to budget cuts two of the tests may not be done. These tests are very important for the census to explore all the components of the census operations to ensure that any pain points are ironed out before the census goes live nationally. The test encompasses the new technologies, data collection, outreach, and data management techniques that will be employed in Census 2020.

While this test is going on, the Census Bureau will send out a form to the highest-level local politician for every city and town in the country asking for an updated list of addresses in their jurisdiction (LUCA—Local Update of Census Addresses). This address list is used by the Bureau to update their own records to ensure that mail-in forms and online IDs for the upcoming census are sent out to where people actually live. It’s imperative for mayors and city governments to participate in this update of local addresses to ensure their cities have proper resources to count the population.

Census Day, April 1st 2020, begins the official census count operations. Although some information is collected before April 1st and advertising campaigns will probably begin in January, this date is ceremonial. It is meant to raise publicity about the census and drive up response rates. Census data is collected typically through September of the same year, and results are tabulated before the delivery of apportionment counts to the President on December 31st (more on census uses in future blogs). These apportionment counts are used for everything from recounting the number of representatives each state gets to send to the House of Representatives to the distribution of Federal program funds to the states. After the reapportionment counts are given to the President, the Census Bureau works on compiling redistricting counts to send to each state. State congressional districts are drawn in a variety of fashions, but due to the principle of “one person, one vote” put out in the Supreme Court case Reynolds v. Sims (1964), each district must have a roughly equal population, and as such states need accurate counts of populations to ensure equal representation. These counts are delivered to the states by the end of March 2021, after which the Census Bureau continues to analyze the data that was collected during the census and to disseminate it to the community. During this time, the 2020 Census will be analyzed in an attempt to come up with new methodologies to innovate census operations, which will be implemented in the 2030 Census.

With the 2020 Census right around the corner, we look back at how the census was conducted in the past, changes that have been made, and what it will look like in the coming online format. The US Census is the most accurate picture of how many people live in our nation, and influences government programs and our political representation. Over the course of the next few blog posts, we will review some of the more detailed questions that have been raised about the census, ranging from the budget of the census, how the census tracks hard to count populations, concerns about data security, redistricting, and the internet divide’s potential impact on an online census. We hope you enjoy the series!

Census 2020 Blog Posts