United States Census

The United States Census (plural censuses or censi) is a decennial census mandated by Article I, Section 2 of the United States Constitution, which states: "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States... according to their respective Numbers... . The actual Enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years".[lower-alpha 1][1] Section 2 of the 14th Amendment amended Article I, Section 2 to include that the "respective Numbers" of the "several States" will be determined by "counting the whole number of persons in each State... excluding Indians not taxed...” The United States Census Bureau (officially the Bureau of the Census, as defined in Title 13 U.S.C. § 11) is responsible for the United States Census. The Bureau of the Census is part of the United States Department of Commerce.

United States Census
Location(s)4600 Silver Hill Rd.
Suitland, Maryland 20746
CountryUnited States
InauguratedAugust 2, 1790 (1790-08-02)
Most recentApril 1, 2010 (2010-04-01)
Next event2020 (2020)

The first census after the American Revolution was taken in 1790, under Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson; there have been 22 federal censuses since that time.[1]

The current national census was held in 2010; the next census is scheduled for 2020. Starting in 2013, the Census Bureau began discussions on using technology to aid data collection starting with the 2020 Census.[2] In 2020, every household will receive an invitation to complete the census over the internet, by phone or by paper questionnaire.[3][4] For years between the decennial censuses, the Census Bureau issues estimates made using surveys and statistical models, in particular, the Population Estimates Program and American Community Survey.

Title 13 of the United States Code governs how the Census is conducted and how its data is handled. Information is confidential as per 13 U.S.C. § 9. The census law, coupled with the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (Title 18 of the United States Code, Sections 3551, 3559, and 3571), provides for penalties of up to $5,000 for not responding or for willfully providing false answers to any question.

The United States Census is a population census, which is distinct from the U.S. Census of Agriculture, which is no longer the responsibility of the Census Bureau. It is also distinct from local censuses conducted by some states or local jurisdictions.


Decennial U.S. Census figures are based on actual counts of persons dwelling in U.S. residential structures. They include citizens, non-citizen legal residents, non-citizen long-term visitors and undocumented immigrants. The Census Bureau bases its decision about whom to count on the concept of usual residence. Usual residence, a principle established by the Census Act of 1790, is defined as the place a person lives and sleeps most of the time. The Census Bureau uses special procedures to ensure that those without conventional housing are counted; however, data from these operations are not considered to be as accurate as data obtained from traditional procedures.[5]

The Census also uses hot-deck imputation to assign data to housing units where occupation status is unknown. This practice has effects across many areas, but is seen by some as controversial.[6] However, the practice was ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Utah v. Evans.

Certain American citizens living overseas are specifically excluded from being counted in the census even though they may vote. Only Americans living abroad who are “Federal employees (military and civilian) and their dependents living overseas with them” are counted. “Private U.S. citizens living abroad who are not affiliated with the Federal government (either as employees or their dependents) will not be included in the overseas counts. These overseas counts are used solely for reapportioning seats in the U. S. House of Representatives”.[7]

According to the Census Bureau, “Census Day” has been April 1 since 1930. Previously, from 1790 to 1820, the census counted the population as of the first Monday in August. It moved to June in 1830, (June 2 in 1890), April 15 in 1910, and January 1 in 1920.[8]


The Census Bureau estimates that in 1970 over six percent of African Americans went uncounted, whereas only around two percent of European Americans[9] went uncounted. Democrats often argue that modern sampling techniques should be used so that more accurate and complete data can be inferred. Republicans often argue against such sampling techniques, stating the U.S. Constitution requires an “actual enumeration” for apportionment of House seats, and that political appointees would be tempted to manipulate the sampling formulas.[10]

Groups like the Prison Policy Initiative assert that the census practice of counting prisoners as residents of prisons, not their pre-incarceration addresses, leads to misleading information about racial demographics and population numbers.[11]

In 2010 Jaime Grant, then director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Policy Institute, thought of the idea of a bright pink sticker for people to stick on their census envelope which had a form for them to check a box for either “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or straight ally,” which her group called “queering the census”.[12] Although the sticker was unofficial and the results were not added to the census, she and others hope the 2020 census will include such statistics.[12] In 2015 Laverne Cox called for transgender people to be counted in the census.[13]

On March 26, 2018 the U.S. Dept of Commerce announced[14] plans to re-include a citizenship question in the 2020 census questionnaire which has not been included on the short form since 1950.[15] The Census Bureau distributed a “long form” to a sample of households receiving the standard Census form in three Censuses from 1970 to 2000,[16] which included a question on citizenship.[17] The proposed citizenship question will be the same as the one that is asked on the yearly American Community Survey (ACS), which is answered by a sample of US households.[14][18]

Proponents of including the question claimed it is necessary to gather an accurate statistical count, while opponents claimed it might suppress responses to the Decennial Census and therefore lead to an inaccurate count.[19] Multiple states have sued the Trump administration arguing that the proposed citizenship question is unconstitutional and may intimidate illegal aliens and undocumented workers, resulting in inaccurate data on immigrant communities.[20] In January 2019 a federal judge in New York ruled against the proposal; the U.S. Government appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court which heard oral arguments in April 2019 about whether the citizenship question was constitutional and whether the Secretary of Commerce followed the law when deciding to add the question, and will issue its decision by the end of the term in June or early July 2019.[21][22]


Censuses had been taken prior to the Constitution's ratification; in the early 17th century, a census was taken in Virginia, and people were counted in nearly all of the British colonies that became the United States.

Throughout the years, the country's needs and interests became more complex. This meant that statistics were needed to help people understand what was happening and have a basis for planning. The content of the decennial census changed accordingly. In 1810, the first inquiry on manufactures, quantity and value of products occurred; in 1840, inquiries on fisheries were added; and in 1850, the census included inquiries on social issues, such as taxation, churches, pauperism, and crime. The censuses also spread geographically, to new states and territories added to the Union, as well as to other areas under U.S. sovereignty or jurisdiction. There were so many more inquiries of all kinds in the census of 1880 that almost a full decade was needed to publish all the results. In response to this, the census was mechanized in 1890, with tabulating machines made by Herman Hollerith. This reduced the processing time to two and a half years.[23]

For the first six censuses (1790–1840), enumerators recorded only the names of the heads of household and a general demographic accounting of the remaining members of the household. Beginning in 1850, all members of the household were named on the census. The first slave schedules were also completed in 1850, with the second (and last) in 1860. Censuses of the late 19th century also included agricultural and industrial schedules to gauge the productivity of the nation's economy. Mortality schedules (taken between 1850 and 1880) captured a snapshot of life spans and causes of death throughout the country.

The first nine censuses (1790–1870) were conducted by U.S. Marshals before the Census Bureau was created.[24] Appointed US Marshals of each judicial district hired assistant marshals to conduct the actual enumeration. The census enumerators were typically from the village or neighbourhood and often knew the residents. Before enabling self-identification on the censuses, the US Census Bureau relied on local people to have some knowledge of residents. Racial classification was made by the census enumerator in these decades, rather than by the individual.

Year Total population Progress Most populated state Most populated city Slaves Notes
1790[lower-alpha 2] 3,929,326[lower-alpha 3] Virginia
New York, NY
694,280 Original numbers were corrected later.
1800[lower-alpha 4] 5,308,483[lower-alpha 5] 35% Virginia[lower-alpha 6]
New York, NY
893,605[lower-alpha 7] Original numbers were corrected later.
1810[lower-alpha 8] 7,239,881 36% New York
New York, NY
1820[lower-alpha 9] 9,638,453 33% New York
New York, NY
1830[lower-alpha 10] 12,866,020 33% New York
New York, NY
1840[lower-alpha 11] 17,069,453 33% New York
New York, NY
2,487,355 The census estimated the population of the United States at 17,100,000. The results were tabulated by 28 clerks in the Bureau of the Census.
1850[lower-alpha 12] 23,191,876 36% New York
New York, NY
3,204,313 The 1850 census was a landmark year in American census-taking. It was the first year in which the census bureau attempted to record every member of every household, including women, children and slaves. Accordingly, the first slave schedules were produced in 1850. Prior to 1850, census records had only recorded the name of the head of the household and tabulated the other household members within given age groups.
1860[lower-alpha 13] 31,443,321 35% New York
New York, NY
3,953,761 The results were tabulated by 184 clerks in the Bureau of the Census. This was the first census where the American Indians officially were counted, but only those who had 'renounced tribal rules'. The figure for the nation was 40,000.
1870[lower-alpha 14] 39,818,449[lower-alpha 15] 23% New York
New York, NY
The first census to provide detailed information on the black population, only years after the culmination of the Civil War when slaves were granted freedom. The results are controversial, as many believed it underestimated the true population numbers, especially in New York and Pennsylvania.
1880[lower-alpha 16] 50,189,209 30% New York
New York, NY
The first census that permitted women to be enumerators. Also led to the discovery of Alabama paradox.
1890[lower-alpha 17][n 1] 62,947,714 25.5% New York
New York, NY
Because it was believed that the frontier region of the United States no longer existed, the tracking of westward migration was not tabulated in the 1890 census.[25] This trend prompted Frederick Jackson Turner to develop his milestone Frontier Thesis.

The 1890 census was the first to be compiled using the new tabulating machines invented by Herman Hollerith. The net effect of the many changes from the 1880 census (the larger population, the number of data items to be collected, the Census Bureau headcount, the volume of scheduled publications, and the use of Hollerith's electromechanical tabulators) was to reduce the time required to fully process the census from eight years for the 1880 census to six years for the 1890 census.[26] The total population, of 62,947,714, was announced after only six weeks of processing (punched cards were not used for this family, or rough, count).[27][28] The public reaction to this tabulation was disbelief, as it was widely believed that the "right answer" was at least 75,000,000.[29]
This census is also notable for the fact it is one of only three for which the original data are no longer available. Almost all the population schedules were destroyed following a fire in 1921.

1900[lower-alpha 18] 76,212,168 21% New York
New York, NY
1910[lower-alpha 19] 92,228,496 21% New York
New York, NY
1920[lower-alpha 20] 106,021,537 15% New York
New York, NY
This was the first census that recorded a population exceeding 100 million.
1930[lower-alpha 21][n 2] 122,775,046 13% New York
New York, NY
1940[lower-alpha 22] 132,164,569 7.3% New York
New York, NY
The most recent census where individuals' data have now been released to the public (by the 72-year rule).
1950[lower-alpha 23] 150,697,361 14.5% New York
New York, NY
Will be available for public inspection on April 1, 2022.
1960[lower-alpha 24] 179,323,175 18.5% New York
New York, NY
Will be available for public inspection on April 1, 2032.
1970[lower-alpha 25] 203,302,031 13% California
New York, NY
The first census that recorded a population exceeding 200 million. Will be available for public inspection on April 1, 2042.
1980[lower-alpha 26] 226,545,805 11% California
New York, NY
Will be available for public inspection on April 1, 2052.
1990[lower-alpha 27] 248,709,873 10% California
New York, NY
Will be available for public inspection on April 1, 2062.
2000[lower-alpha 28] 281,421,906 13% California
New York, NY
Will be available for public inspection on April 1, 2072.
2010[lower-alpha 29] 308,745,538 10% California
New York, NY
The first short-form-only census since 1940, as the decennial long form has been replaced by the American Community Survey. The first census that recorded a population exceeding 300 million. Will be available for public inspection on April 1, 2082.
  1. Taken one day late because June 1 was a Sunday.
  2. In the Alaska Territory, census-taking began on October 1, 1929.

Respondent confidentiality

One purpose of the census is to divide the house seats by population. Furthermore, as with any Census Bureau survey the data provides a beginning for allocation of resources. In addition, collected data are used in aggregate for statistical purposes.[30] Replies are obtained from individuals and establishments only to enable the compilation of such general statistics. The confidentiality of these replies is very important. By law, no one—neither the census takers nor any other Census Bureau employee—is permitted to reveal identifiable information about any person, household, or business.

By law (Pub.L. 95–416, 92 Stat. 915, enacted October 5, 1978), individual decennial census records are sealed for 72 years,[31] a number chosen in 1952[32] as slightly higher than the average female life expectancy, 71.6.[33] The individual census data most recently released to the public is the 1940 census, released on April 2, 2012. Aggregate census data are released when available.

Historical FBI use of data

Under the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), using primarily census records, compiled (1939–1941) the Custodial Detention Index ("CDI") on citizens, enemy aliens, and foreign nationals, who might be dangerous. The Second War Powers Act of 1941 repealed the legal protection of confidential census data, which was not restored until 1947. This information facilitated the internment of Japanese-Americans, following the Japanese attack on the U.S. at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the internment of Italian- and German-Americans following the United States' entry into World War II.[34][35]

In 1980, four FBI agents went to the Census Bureau's Colorado Springs office with warrants to seize Census documents, but were forced to leave with nothing. Courts upheld that no agency, including the FBI, has access to Census data.[36]

Data analysis

The census records data specific to individual respondents are not available to the public until 72 years after a given census was taken, but aggregate statistical data derived from the census are released as soon as they are available. Every census up to and including 1940 is currently available to the public and can be viewed on microfilm released by the National Archives and Records Administration, the official keeper of archived federal census records. Complete online census records can be accessed for no cost from National Archives facilities and many libraries,[37] and a growing portion of the census is freely available from non-commercial online sources.[38][39][40]

Census microdata for research purposes are available for censuses from 1850 forward through the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS), and scanned copies of each of the decennial census questionnaires are available online from many websites. Computerized aggregate data describing the characteristics of small geographic areas for the entire period from 1790 to 2010 are available from the National Historical Geographic Information System.

Regions and divisions

The bureau recognizes four census regions within the United States and further organizes them into nine divisions. These regions are groupings of states that subdivide the United States for the presentation of data. They should not be construed as necessarily being thus grouped owing to any geographical, historical, or cultural bonds.

US Census Regions
Region 1: Northeast Region 2: Midwest Region 3: South Region 4: West

See also


  1. Constitution of the United States
  2. August 2, 1790
  3. The number originally published in 1790 was 3,893,635.
  4. August 4, 1800
  5. The numbers originally published in 1800 was 5,172,312.
  6. At the time of the 1800 Census, the territory donated to form the District of Columbia was still being administered by the states of Maryland and Virginia. The state of Maryland included the population of the District under its control within its own return. The population of the District of Columbia within Maryland was 8,144 persons, including 5,672 whites, 400 free blacks, and 2,472 enslaved persons.
  7. The number originally published in 1800 was 875,626.
  8. August 6, 1810
  9. August 7, 1820
  10. June 1, 1830
  11. June 1, 1840
  12. June 1, 1850
  13. June 1, 1860
  14. June 1, 1870
  15. The number originally published in 1870 was 38,555,983.
  16. June 1, 1880
  17. June 2, 1890
  18. June 1, 1900
  19. April 15, 1910
  20. January 1, 1920
  21. April 1, 1930
  22. April 1, 1940
  23. April 1, 1950
  24. April 1, 1960
  25. April 1, 1970
  26. April 1, 1980
  27. April 1, 1990
  28. April 1, 2000
  29. April 1, 2010


  1. "Decennial Census – History – U.S. Census Bureau". Census.gov. Retrieved March 19, 2015.
  2. Morello, Carol (March 28, 2013). "2020 Census will be done by Internet". Washington Post. Retrieved April 1, 2013.
  3. "What You Need To Know About The 2020 Census"". NPR. Retrieved April 1, 2019.
  4. "Ways to Respond". U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved September 20, 2019.
  5. Smith, Annetta; Smith, Denise (2001). U.S Census Bureau Census Special Reports Series CENSR/01-2. US GPO.
  6. Meng, Xiao-Li (1994). "Multiple-Imputation Inferences with Uncongenial Sources of Input". Statistical Science. 9 (4): 538–558. doi:10.1214/ss/1177010269. JSTOR 2246252.
  7. "Census Help". ask.census.gov. United States Census Bureau. Archived from the original on June 17, 2017. Retrieved June 17, 2017.
  8. "History. U.S. Census Bureau". U.S. Census Bureau.
  9. "Race Names: Talking and teaching about race". University of Wisconsin-Madison. September 16, 2017. The easiest way to avoid serious offense is to stick with the continent names (European, African, Asian, American).
  10. Michael Teitelbaum; Jay Winter (August 30, 1998). "Why People Fight So Much About the Census". Washington Post. Retrieved April 29, 2014.
  11. "The Problem". Prisoners of the Census. September 26, 2005. Retrieved March 24, 2010.
  12. "'Queering the census' movement aims to get single gays counted". NY Daily News. Retrieved March 19, 2015.
  13. Mic. "Laverne Cox Calls for Transgender People to Be Counted Differently in Census Reporting". Mic. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  14. "U.S. Department of Commerce Announces Reinstatement of Citizenship Question to the 2020 Decennial Census". commerce.gov. March 26, 2018.
  15. "FACT CHECK: Has Citizenship Been A Standard Census Question?". npr.org.
  16. "Questionnaires – History". U. S. Bureau of the Census. Retrieved June 18, 2019.
  17. "Census History: 1990 Population (Questions on Short and Long Forms)". U. S. Bureau of the Census. May 30, 2018. Retrieved June 18, 2019.
  18. "Questions Planned for the 2020 Census and American Community Survey; Federal Legislative and Program Uses" (PDF). U. S. Bureau of the Census. March 2018. Retrieved June 18, 2019.
  19. Weiser, Wendy (March 27, 2018). "Why the census asking about citizenship is such a problem". Huff Post. Retrieved March 28, 2018.
  20. Gomez, Alan (March 27, 2018). "California sues Trump administration over Census citizenship question". USA Today. Retrieved March 27, 2018.
  21. Wang, Hansi Lo (January 15, 2019). "Judge Orders Trump Administration To Remove 2020 Census Citizenship Question". NPR. Retrieved January 15, 2019.
  22. Howe, Amy (April 23, 2019). "Argument analysis: Divided court seems ready to uphold citizenship question on 2020 census". SCOTUSblog.
  23. Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray, "Computer a History of the Information Machine – Second Edition", Westview Press, pages 14–19 2004
  24. (USMS), U.S. Marshals Service. "U.S. Marshals Service". www.usmarshals.gov.
  25. Porter, Robert; Gannett, Henry; Hunt, William (1895). "Progress of the Nation", in "Report on Population of the United States at the Eleventh Census: 1890, Part 1". Bureau of the Census. pp. xviii–xxxiv.
  26. Report of the Commissioner of Labor In Charge of The Eleventh Census to the Secretary of the Interior for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1895. Washington, DC: United States Government Publishing Office. July 29, 1895. OCLC 867910652. Retrieved November 13, 2015. Page 9: "You may confidently look for the rapid reduction of the force of this office after the 1st of October, and the entire cessation of clerical work during the present calendar year. ... The condition of the work of the Census Division and the condition of the final reports show clearly that the work of the Eleventh Census will be completed at least two years earlier than was the work of the Tenth Census." — Carroll D. Wright, Commissioner of Labor in Charge
  27. "Population and Area (Historical Censuses)" (PDF). United States Census Bureau.
  28. Truesdell, Leon E. (1965) The Development of Punch Card Tabulation in the Bureau of the Census 1890–1940, US GPO, p.61
  29. Austrian, Geoffrey D. (1982) Herman Hollerith – Forgotten Giant of Information Processing, Columbia, pp. 85–86
  30. "What is the purpose of the Census? What is the data used for?".
  31. "The "72-Year Rule"". U.S. Census Bureau.
  32. "The 1940 Census: 72-Year-Old Secrets Revealed".
  33. "Life expectancy in the USA, 1900-98".
  34. Minkel, JR (March 30, 2007). "Confirmed: The U.S. Census Bureau Gave Up Names of Japanese-Americans in WW II". Scientific American. Retrieved November 2, 2009.
  35. El Nasser, Haya (March 30, 2007). "Papers show Census role in WWII camps". USA Today. Retrieved November 2, 2009.
  36. Boyle, Mary (March 24, 2000). "Springs once tested Census' confidentiality". The Gazette (Colorado Springs). Archived from the original on June 5, 2010.
  37. National Archives and Records Administration. "How can I search the Census Records?". Archived from the original on December 17, 2008. Retrieved December 13, 2008.
  38. "Discover your Ancestors". Archived from the original on December 26, 2008.
  39. "The USGenWeb Free Census Project". Retrieved March 24, 2010.
  40. "The USGenWeb Census Project". Retrieved March 24, 2010.

Further reading

  • Anderson, Margo J. The American Census: A Social History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988. ISBN 0-300-04014-8
  • Anderson, Margo J. The American Census: A Social History, Second Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0-300-19542-2
  • Anderson, Margo J. Encyclopedia of the U.S. Census. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2000. ISBN 1-56802-428-2.
  • Dorman, Robert L. "The Creation and Destruction of the 1890 Federal Census," American Archivist, 71 (Fall–Winter 2008), 350–83.
  • Krüger, Stephen. "The Decennial Census", 19 Western State University Law Review 1, (Fall 1991); available at HeinOnline (subscription required)
  • Schor, Paul. Counting Americans: How the US Census Classified the Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
  • Lavin, Michael R. "Understanding the Census: A Guide for Marketers, Planners, Grant Writers, and Other Data Users". Kenmore, NY: Epoch Books, 1996. ISBN 0-89774-995-2.
  • U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau. Measuring America: the decennial censuses from 1790 to 2000. 2002
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