The U.S. Census: 6 Common Questions Answered

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“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers…”

– The Constitution of the United States, Article I, Section 2.

With those words, the founders of our nation established the U.S. Census. In doing so, they started a decennial tradition — which by its definition occurs once every 10 years — that aims to provide an official count of the U.S. population to Congress.

The nation’s headcount is then used to distribute more than $675 billion in federal and state funds annually, among other things.

Let’s Take a Closer Look at the Census

According to the history on Census.gov, the first Census was done in 1790 and overseen by Thomas Jefferson. At that time, court marshals fanned out across the 13 original Colonies — plus Kentucky, Maine, Tennessee and Vermont — to ask just six mandatory questions.

History buffs will note that that the questions asked during that first Census were about gender, race, relationship to the head of household, name of the head of household and the number of slaves that were owned, if any.

Of course, slavery was later abolished and the Census has evolved and changed over the years, too. Today what we think of as the Census exists in two varieties: The short form and the long form.

The short form includes 10 questions and is sent to almost every household in the country once every 10 years. This is the traditional questionnaire you probably think of whenever you hear the word “Census.”

Meanwhile, the long form includes those basic queries plus 26 additional population questions and 20 additional housing questions.

Unlike the short form, the long form (aka the American Community Survey) goes out every single year to approximately one in six households.

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By virtue of its annual nature, the American Community Survey (ACS) provides a constant flow of facts and figures to the Census Bureau rather than the once-a-decade snapshot from the short form.

Census.gov says that steadier stream of ACS data helps “determine funding for a wide array of federal, state, local and tribal programs.”

Here’s what you need to know about the upcoming short-form Census…

When Are Census Forms Being Mailed?

You’ll start to see an invitation to respond to the 2020 Census in your mailbox at home between March 12 and 20, according to Census.gov.

Then a second letter will come in the mail shortly after that with a reminder to send in your response.

Additional reminders will be sent throughout April. If you fail to respond, a Census taker will be dispatched to your home to collect your responses in person.

How Will I Be Asked to Respond to the Census?

There are four ways you can respond to the Census: Over the internet, through the telephone, by traditional paper questionnaire or via an in-person visit.

What Kinds of Questions Will Be Asked?

The short form asks up to nine questions per person living at your address including:

  • Headcount at your house, apartment or mobile home
  • Do you rent or own? Have a mortgage or own your home mortgage-free?
  • Your phone number
  • Your name
  • Your sex
  • Your age
  • Your ethnicity and race

2020 Census form

What Is the Data Used For?

In addition to helping with fair disbursement of federal funds to local communities, Census.gov says the information compiled from the short-form Census helps “determine the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives (a process called apportionment).”

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Are the Census Questions That Probe Beyond Just a Simple Headcount Legal?

Yes, they are. Legal precedent for asking questions beyond just a basic enumeration of the population dates back to 1870, according to Census.gov.

Later, in 1910, the courts ruled that Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution “does not prohibit the gathering of other statistics, if ‘necessary and proper,’ for the intelligent exercise of other powers enumerated in the constitution, and in such case there could be no objection to acquiring this information through the same machinery by which the population is enumerated.”

Still, Don’t Those Intrusive Questions Violate My Fourth Amendment Rights?

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, have been invoked by critics seeking to challenge the legality of the Census. But unfortunately, that’s not the way the courts see it.

“[I]t is clear that the degree to which these questions intrude upon an individual’s privacy is limited, given the methods used to collect the census data and the statutory assurance that the answers and attribution to an individual will remain confidential,” a District Court ruled in 2000.

“The degree to which the information is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests has been found to be significant.”

That ruling was also affirmed in an appellate court decision one year later.

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