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2020 U.S. Census

History of the Census

Following the adoption of the United States Constitution in 1787, the federal government carried out the first decennial census in 1790. The United States was the first country to require a census be conducted on a regular basis. Other countries at the time only conducted censuses on an "as needed" basis.

Organizationally, the Census Bureau has evolved greatly over time. Between 1790 and 1840, censuses were taken by marshals of the judicial districts. Only in 1840 did Congress establish a central office which became known as the Census Bureau. The Bureau went through various bureaucratic formulations over the ensuing decades until arriving at their current placement in the Department of Commerce.

The first censuses were quite different from what we have today. The marshalls gathered both population data (e.g., household members, race, sex, age) and economic data (e.g., how many horses, cows, pigs you owned). Once collected, the results were sometimes publicly posted so everyone could see the results. Not everyone was happy with this arrangement! It wasn't until the 1890 census that the Bureau started introducing the idea of confidentiality into census procedures. Over the next several decades this promise of confidentiality evolved into what exists today - a promise that all your information will be kept confidential for 72 years.

There have been other changes as well. For decades, the Census Bureau utilized short and long forms to gather household data. Everyone answered the questions contained on the short form (e.g., name, gender, names of household members). The long form went to a sample of households and included more detailed questions about household income, jobs, etc. Nobody wanted to get a long form. After 2000 the Bureau developed the American Community Survey to gather the data previously collected with the long form. Rather than gather the data every ten years, the Bureau collects the data continuously using sampling techniques. And, of course, technology also became an important part of the process. In 2010 Census Enumerators for the first time used handheld devices to record data when they interviewed household members in person.

The evolution continues. The 2020 census will be the first census conducted primarily online with options for responding by phone or mail. In mid-March, households will begin receiving official Census Bureau mail with detailed information on how to respond to the 2020 Census. If no one in the household responds within a period of weeks, the Bureau will send a Census Enumerator to the household to gather the information in person.

The first results will compiled by the end of the year. The Census Bureau is required to submit state population totals to the U.S. President by December 31, 2020. The data will be forwarded to the states in spring 2021 for purposes of Congressional reapportionment and redistricting (if necessary or desired).


Sources: U.S. Census Bureau and Wikipedia