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United States Census

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

The United States Census is a national survey conducted every ten years to enumerate the population for taxation and political representation.

The survey is conducted by the Bureau of the Census, also known as the United States Census Bureau, and is mandatory for all U.S. citizens. The purpose of the census is to collect statistical data about U.S. citizens to determine the appropriate division of seats in the House of Representatives and provide a basis for apportioning federal taxes and funding among states.

The numbers of citizens, non-citizen legal residents, illegal immigrants and long-term visitors living in any residential structures in the U.S. make up the tally of the Census. A person is counted as a resident of a home if it is the place where they most often live and sleep. While some U.S. citizens living outside the country have the right to vote, only those who are military or civilian federal employees are counted in the Census. The Census does try to tally the numbers of homeless citizens but with an acknowledgement that accuracy is less assured.

The specific data collected for any given Census can vary, but examples include:

  • Basic population characteristics, such as age, sex, marital status and size of household.
  • Economic data, such as workforce participation, workplace and education.
  • Geographic information, such as place of birth, usual place of residence and former place of residence.

The U.S. Census is mandated by Article 1, Section 2 of the United States Constitution. Refusal to take the Census is punishable by a fine of up to $100. Business and real estate agents can be subject to $500 fines for failing to provide correct names for the Census and $10,000 for falsifying answers on the survey.

The information for the U.S. Census is aggregated for statistical analysis and is intended to remain confidential. Census takers and Bureau employees are forbidden by law to reveal personally identifiable information (PII) from Census data.

The Bureau of the Census is not free of controversy. Disadvantaged minorities are often underrepresented in the Census. In 1970, for example, it was estimated that six percent of blacks were not surveyed, in contrast to two percent of whites. It is often recommended that more current sampling procedures could yield more accurate figures.

The ability of government agencies to protect citizens' data is also in question. In 2015, the Census Bureau admitted that it had been hacked and had data exfiltrated from its systems.

Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, presided over the first Census after the American Revolution in 1790.

This was last updated in July 2017

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