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Everything You Never Wanted to Know About the Census

The United States Census is conducted on a decennial basis, and that’s roughly where the public understanding of it begins and ends. The importance of the Census is vastly undervalued and that clearly needs to change. What is even more important than the Census, however, is the method in which it, and other related data gathering expeditions, are conducted.


Until 1940, the United States Census Bureau used a direct headcount as the method of census taking. That changed after many decades, and, from 1940 until 2000, the federal government used statistical sampling as the method of census-taking. Statistical sampling is the collection of data from a set of additional questions asked to roughly 5% of the country as part of the Census (which is still asked to the country as a whole), and then the extrapolation of this data to apply to everyone in the United States. Statistical sampling is done to avoid placing a heavy burden on all respondents, or wildly increasing the cost of conducting the census while still getting a fairly accurate result on these additional questions.

For a long time sampling was seen as the most dramatic and significant change in census-taking methods, but the introduction of the American Community Survey (ACS) in 2010 easily beat statistical sampling in terms of being unique and efficient. The ACS is not the decennial census, nor a replacement for it. Rather, it is a monthly survey that allows near-constant data collection on topics not covered by the traditional census.

There are several key differences between these two surveys, although both are critical parts of how the US appropriates funds, distributes aid, and establishes social programs. The ACS is conducted on a monthly basis and distributed randomly to a selection of citizens from all 50 states, DC, and Puerto Rico. It covers topics that do not appear on the decennial Census such as education, internet access, employment, and transportation. The data from the ACS is used to determine which programs would be likely to succeed in which areas, which areas are more likely to need which kinds of emergency management services, how certain regions are developing economically, and a variety of other data points that could be useful to communities and their leaders.

The US Census, as opposed to the ACS, is conducted every ten years and counts every single person living in the 50 states, the 5 territories, and the District of Columbia via direct mail, door knockers, online surveys, and even phone calls. The topics covered on the Census are less invasive and fewer in number than those covered on the ACS and include housing status, age, race, and gender. The Census is used to provide an official count of all people currently living in the United States, which is then used to apportion Congressional representation. Consequently, incorrect census data can lead to unnecessary alterations in Congressional representation.

People that tend to be missed during the Census include the homeless, people with limited English-speaking skills, those who are wary of the government, or people who live in inaccessible places.

Unfortunately, these groups are more prevalent among communities of color, which can lead to disproportionate representation for those communities in government. The consequences of disproportionate representation include fewer employment opportunities, restricted access to education, subpar healthcare, fewer social programs, and a general lack of voice in government. These consequences can lead to feelings of ostracization and abandonment by the communities experiencing them.

The US Census has undergone large changes in the last century, but its importance has remained. Accurate apportionment of representatives remains crucial to a functioning government, and this cannot be accomplished without an accurate completion of the Census. Completing the Census is the bare minimum of civic responsibility, and we owe it to ourselves and our communities to step up when we can.

Siena Cooney is a first year Political Science major in the School of Public Affairs. She is a staff writer at American Agora.

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