The U.S. Census Bureau

Counting Heads and Then Some

US Census Form
blackwaterimages/E+/Getty Images

There are a lot of people in the United States, and it's not easy keeping track of them all. But one agency tries to do just that: the U.S. Census Bureau.

Conducting the Decennial Census

Every 10 years, as required by the U.S. Constitution, the Census Bureau conducts a head count of all the people in the U.S. and asks them questions to help learn more about the country as a whole: who we are, where we live, what we earn, how many of us are married or single, and how many of us have children, among other topics. The data collected isn't trivial, either. It is used to apportion seats in Congress, distribute federal aid, define legislative districts and help federal, state and local governments plan for growth.

The 2020 Census

By April 1, 2020—Census Day—every home in the United States should have received an invitation to participate in the 2020 Census. Once the invitation arrives, you should respond for your home in one of three ways: online, by phone, or by mail. When you respond to the census, you tell the Census Bureau where you live as of April 1, 2020. In May 2020, the Census Bureau begins visiting homes that haven't responded to the 2020 Census to make sure everyone is counted. 

A Massive and Costly Task

The next national census in the United States will be in 2020, and it won't be an insignificant undertaking. It is expected to cost more than $15.6 billion, and around 1 million part-time employees will be enlisted. In a bid to increase data collection efficiency and processing, the 2020 census will be the first to use hand-held computing devices with GPS capability. Formal planning for the 2020 survey, including trial runs in California and North Carolina, begins two years before the survey.

History of the Census

The first U.S. census was taken in Virginia in the early 1600s, when America was still a British colony. Once independence was established, a new census was needed to determine who, exactly, comprised the nation; that occurred in 1790, under then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.

As the nation grew and evolved, the census became more sophisticated. To help plan for growth, to assist with tax collection, to learn about crime and its roots and to learn more information about people's lives, the census began asking more questions of people. The Census Bureau was made a permanent institution in 1902 by an act of Congress.

Composition and Duties of the Census Bureau

With about 12,000 permanent employees-and, for the 2010 Census, a temporary force of 860,000-the Census Bureau is headquartered in Suitland, Md. It has 12 regional offices in Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, N.C., Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City, Kan., Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Seattle. The bureau also operates a processing center in Jeffersonville, Ind., as well as call centers in Hagerstown, Md., and Tucson, Ariz., and a computer facility in Bowie, Md. The Bureau falls under the auspices of the cabinet-level Department of Commerce and is headed by a director who is appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate.

The Census Bureau doesn't operate strictly for the benefit of the federal government, however. All of its findings are available to and for use by the public, academia, policy analysts, local and state governments and business and industry. Though the Census Bureau may ask questions that seem exceedingly personal-about household income, for example, or the nature of one's relationships to others in a household-the information collected is kept confidential by federal law and is used simply for statistical purposes.

In addition to taking a complete census of the U.S. population every 10 years, the Census Bureau conducts several other surveys periodically. They vary by geographic region, economic strata, industry, housing and other factors. Some of the many entities that use this information include the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Social Security Administration, the National Center for Health Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics.

The next federal census taker, called an enumerator, likely won't come knocking on your door until 2020, but when he or she does, remember that they are doing more than just counting heads.

The Census and Personal Privacy

Many people resist responding to the census, considering it pose a potential invasion of their privacy. However, all answers to all census questionnaires are kept strictly anonymous. They are used only to produce statistics. The U.S. Census Bureau is bound by law to protect answers and keep them strictly confidential. The law ensures that private information is never published and that answers cannot be used against respondents by any government agency or court.

By law, the Census Bureau cannot release any identifiable information about anyone’s home or business, even to law enforcement agencies. Privacy of personally-identifiable census information is protected under Title 13 of the U.S. Code. Under this law, disclosure of personally-identifiable census information is punishable by a fine of not more than $5,000 or not more than 5 years in prison, or both.

Updated by Robert Longley