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What is a Census?

Amy Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1). This first verse of what is known to Christians as the Christmas story also details another important historical event: the census. Even though Caesar was undoubtedly interested in the names and numbers of people under Roman rule for tax purposes, the count was a census.


A census may unofficially refer to anything that is counted for a specific purpose. It may be made of the number of animals in a shelter, for example, or residents in a nursing home. However, this tally, in its strictest form, is an official enumeration of the population.

The first count of the U.S. population was conducted in 1790, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In those days, and for many decades to follow, the census was conducted entirely by people going from house to house, gathering information from each family they spoke with. They took information about the number of people in the home, sex, age, occupation, information about the home’s structure, and so on. Later, the agency began mailing out forms and followed up with visits from census-takers if the forms were not mailed in.

The U.S. census is a huge undertaking, which probably explains why it is done only once every ten years. The Bureau hires over 800,000 temporary workers for the job. Censuses always reveal vital information about a country, including ethnic diversity and dispersion, income, poverty, baby booms, and other population trends.

In the United States, this information is crucial when considering how government dollars will be spent. It can also determine how many seats in Congress a state may have, since Congressional seats are determined by population. Votes in the electoral college are determined by Congressional seats, so it is not fantasy to say that the census might help determine the next president.

U.S. census records are released in their entirety when they are 70 years old. This helps protect the privacy of participants and their families. However, these records are also a valuable resource for those researching their family histories or the history of a town or city. The detailed lists of parents and children, their addresses and occupations, descriptions of their homes and the like may help locate missing ancestors or missing property.

Accurate information is critical in determining everything from a nation’s population to its average income, from the birth rate to the death rate. The census is a necessary part of making sure a government is doing what it is supposed to do.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Amy Pollick
By Amy Pollick
Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at PublicPeople. With experience in various roles and numerous articles under her belt, she crafts compelling content that informs and engages readers across various platforms on topics of all levels of complexity.
Discussion Comments
By mutsy — On Mar 02, 2011

Sunny27 - I remember when they had the ads on the radio for census jobs but I would not want to do such a job.

The idea of going to someone’s home that I do not know by myself is really not very safe.

I understand that they have to account for everyone but maybe they can have those that did not respond my mail to go to their local library in order to fill out the questionnaire there.

I just hate the idea of someone being at risk like that because you never know what type of people you will encounter when you open the door.

By Sunny27 — On Mar 01, 2011

I know during the last 2010 census if you did not respond my mail from the questionnaire that was sent by the government, you would have a census worker come to your home and ask you demographic information.

This is what happened to me. I forgot to mail in my form and a lady showed up at my door. You have to talk to these people or you can be fined because it is actually against the law not to talk to a census worker when they need to ask you some questions.

They asked how many people lived in the household and their ages and sex. They also ask about my nationality and how long I lived in the home as well.

Amy Pollick
Amy Pollick
Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at PublicPeople....
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