Published on February 11, 2020

Once every ten years, the US Census Bureau does a complete population count, surveying every resident in the US. This count is mandated by the Constitution and requires reaching millions of households. USAFacts is giving you the history of the decennial census and everything you need to know to participate in 2020.

Who participates in Census Bureau surveys?

Everyone who has established a residence in the US is counted, including individuals with work visas, international students, and unauthorized immigrants, but excluding temporary visitors such as tourists.

When should I be expecting to receive my survey notification?

You don’t need to sign-up; the Census Bureau is hard at work making sure they get to you. You will receive a letter in the mail between March 12th - 20th.

Those who do not respond online or by mail to the initial requests are visited in person by a team of Census surveyors.

How is 2020 different than past counts?

The 2020 Census will be the first time you can take the survey online. In fact, the bureau’s goal is to have 55% of responses submitted digitally, whether on a desktop computer or mobile phone. Most households will be contacted by mail with a unique code to fill out the survey online. However, in neighborhoods with low internet access or usage, the paper form will be included.

The more people who take the survey online, the more money the Bureau saves having to track down non-respondents. The proposed budget for the 2020 survey is $15.6 billion, which works out to roughly $111 per household surveyed, depending on population growth.

Why do I keep hearing about the need for a complete count?

Data from the decennial Census is used for a variety of purposes. It determines legislative districts and representation and sets eligibility for government programs like housing assistance. The data is also used to allocate nearly $700 billion, or 13% of all government spending, to government grants and programs. When fewer people respond than actually live in a given area, the data may under-allocate elected representatives or reduce the amount of funding given to that community.

Why have I been hearing about adding a question on citizenship?

After a legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, the decennial census will not be asking about citizenship. Other sample-based Census surveys, such as the yearly American Community Survey, already collect data on citizenship.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, proposed adding a question regarding citizenship. The question would be “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” However, the Census Bureau was hesitant to add this question for fear it would deter respondents from completing the decennial Census, as has been found during tests of the 2020 census.

Under-response affects the accuracy of the population data that determines Congressional seats and Electoral College votes. Several federal judges found this question violates administrative law.

Why do we have a national census?

Census-taking is intertwined with the birth of democracy in America. The first complete national census took place immediately following the US declaration of independence from Britain. The country’s founders needed to determine the number of seats per state in the House of Representatives as well as to determine how much states would pay in taxes to fund the new union. The Constitution calls for a complete Census once every 10 years.

Today, the data collected through the Census helps determine legislative representation, conduct research, craft public policy, and allocate government funds.

When was the US Census Bureau created?

The first complete national census occurred in 1790 and took 18 months to complete. Compared to the modern-day census, the first survey collected only a few basic data points, like the name of the head of the household and the number of people in the household. Over time, the Census Bureau added new questions about demographics, occupations, and community activities to inform the research and planning that goes into running the country.

In addition, new surveys were added to supplement the questions asked every 10 years. These surveys do not survey the whole population; they rely on sample populations to estimate national totals. The US Census Bureau now publishes monthly, quarterly, and annual statistics, in addition to the information collected from the complete Census. Some surveys you may have heard of before include the American Community Survey, Current Population Survey, American Housing Survey, and the Annual Business Survey.

The Census Bureau is continually working on new surveys and supplements to meet the research needs of the government.

This article was originally published on December 19th, 2019. It was updated on February 11th, 2020.