The U.S. Census

Distribute an article that discusses the first U.S. census, and the 2000 census.
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The First Census

With its use of the Internet, sophisticated computers, and advanced statistical analysis, the census has indeed come a long way from 1790, when a group of federal marshals rode on horseback through the original 13 states counting the U.S. population, which was then just shy of four million.

That first census was the product of political compromise. Article I, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution requires a census every ten years to determine how many members of Congress can be allocated to each state. However, the Founding Fathers suspected that each state would try to augment its population to increase its representation. So, the first census was also used to allocate the cost of the Revolutionary War, with more populous states paying more. Since no state would want to pay more than its fair share, it was thought that each would seek a truly accurate count.

In those days, there was no form to fill out; marshals asked the questions and recorded the results in notebooks or on whatever bits of paper were handy. It took 18 months to count 3.9 million inhabitants. The marshals recorded the number of free white males 16 and older, free white males under 16, free white females, all other free persons by sex and color, and slaves. Slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person, while Indians were excluded.

With each new decade, the form and purpose of the census evolved somewhat. Between 1790 and 1840 the number of census questions ballooned from six to over 70. In 1850 Congress revised the process, including questions on national birth and occupation and establishing a Census Office. Following the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment abolished the three-fifths compromise. The census of 1890 was the first to be tabulated by machine.

Changes continued to be made in the 20th century. The 1920 census indicated that for the first time more Americans lived in cities than rural areas. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the census department began measuring unemployment and income. The first nondefense computer was developed to tabulate the 1950 census. Mail-in forms took precedence over door-to-door enumerators in 1970.

In Jan. 1999 the Supreme Court ruled that statistical sampling—which allows for the estimation of certain populations, such as the homeless or minorities, based on other data—could not be used to redistribute congressional seats. The Court did say, however, that statistical sampling could be used to draw legislative districts, and to determine population for federal spending.

The Census Bureau was heavily criticized following the 1990 census, which missed an estimated 8.4 million people and counted some 4.4 million people twice. An additional 13 million people were counted in the wrong place, made up, or included by mistake. Part of the problem has been the declining levels of census participation. Some 30 million households did not respond, partly because their members may not have been able to read English.

Census 2000

Employing some 860,000 temporary workers and costing $6 billion, Census 2000 is the largest peacetime mobilization of resources and personnel. Officials reported that 80 million households, or 67% of the 120 million families in the U.S., did return their forms by the April 17 deadline. By early July, census workers had either counted or declared vacant the 42 million housing units that did not return a questionnaire in the mail. Later in the summer, 12 million households were revisited in an effort to verify the data collected. A separate sampling of 314,000 households nationwide was also undertaken to measure the accuracy of the count.

In an effort to reach everyone, Census 2000 used forms printed in English, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Tagalog (spoken in the Philippines).

The short form asked just seven questions, making it the briefest survey in 180 years. Only one in six households across the country were randomly selected to receive the 52-question long form.

The Census Bureau expects the state population count to be completed by Dec. 31, 2000. (Information from the 2000 census was not available as the almanac went to print; therefore earlier figures are used.) The population of a given state or municipality is the basis for the distribution of an estimated $185 billion in federal funds, for everything from schools, highway and mass transit, aid to the elderly, and hospitals, to name a few.

The federal government also relies on race and ethnicity data collected by the census to determine whether states and municipalities are in compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1964. The Census Bureau expects to make racial information available by April 1, 2001. All other information, including housing and economic statistics, will be released periodically between June 2001 and Sept. 2003 in both printed reports and on-line ( ).

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