The U.S. Census


A census is simply a count of people. Civilizations have been conducting censuses for thousands of years often in order to keep track of the number of tax paying citizens.

In the United States, the U.S. Constitution requires that a census be conducted every 10 years to determine the proper number U.S. House Representatives for each state (and other things such as electoral college votes, funding for government programs, etc.). As you recall, each state is entitled to at least one U.S. House Representative regardless of the state’s population, and every state also has two Senators. Therefore, each state is entitled to a minimum of three (3) total representatives in Congress – one for the House and two for the Senate. However, most states have more than one House representative. California currently has the most House Representatives with 53.

The next U.S. census is in 2010, and every U.S. citizen is required by law to participate. There will be some interesting changes in the upcoming census, including the use of GPS devices by U.S. census canvassers to better collect information.

In this article, we go over a brief census history, the law that requires a census, how the 2010 census will work, what information you’ll need to provide for the census, and some interesting statistics.

Next, we’ll go over a brief census history.

Brief Census History

Civilizations have been conducting censuses for thousands of years in order to keep track of their number of people, especially for tax purposes. The Bible tells of a census demanded by King David done against the will of God on the people of Israel and Judah, which took 9 months and 20 days to complete. The leaders of the army reported to King David that 800,000 men in Israel and 500,000 men in Judah were fit for military service. The Bible then states that King David’s census angered God and the Lord sent a pestilence over Israel until 70,000 people from Dan to Beer-sheba died.

The Romans conducted the first recorded census in the 5th century B.C. At that time, under the rule of Servius Tullius, the Romans counted and divided their citizens into classes according to wealth. Failure to disclose certain information such as family size, land, livestock, slaves, etc, could mean the forfeiture of all of one’s property, and even enslavement.

However, much of western civilization avoided conducting censuses for fear of offending God based on the biblical census conducted by King David. Religious groups in the United States also delayed conducting censuses. The first official U.S. census took place after the drafting of the U.S. Constitution which mandated taking a census. In 1790, President George Washington commissioned the first U.S. census pursuant to the U.S. Constitution, and it covered the largest amount of territory and scope at that time.

Next, we’ll go over the exact language of the U.S. Constitution which mandates a U.S. census every 10 years.

U.S. Constitution: Article I, Section 2

Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution sets the ground rules for the U.S. census. It states that seats in the House of Representatives shall be divided among the states by population based on a census conducted every 10 years. U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 2 states in relevant part:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Person.

The actual Enumeration shall be made with three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.

The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at least one Representative;...

As you can see, the Constitution states very clearly that a census shall be conducted every 10 years. It also states, from the first quoted line above, that "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States…" So, the census does two main things: (1) determines the proper number of representatives in each state, and (2) how to direct taxes. However, the language fails to state a number of things, including how many total Representatives Congress may have.

Because the Constitution fails to state how many total representatives Congress may have, Congress regularly increased the size of the House in the early years of the country to account for population growth. Then, in 1911, Congress fixed the number of House members to 435 in order to keep the House from becoming too big.

The Constitution also fails to state how to conduct the census. It merely says "in such Manner as they shall by Law direct." In the early days of the United States, canvassers – people who conduct the census - traveled by foot and horseback to collect information. Today, the United States Census Bureau under the United States Department of Commerce conducts censuses with sophisticated equipment such as Global Positioning System (GPS) devices to better assist canvassers. (GPS devices are navigational systems involving satellites and computers that can determine the latitude and longitude of a location.)

Next, we’ll go over what you’ll need for the 2010 U.S. census.

2010 U.S. Census – What You Will Need

Who Must Take the 2010 U.S. Census:
    Residents and non-resident citizens of all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, U.S. Virgin Island, Northern Mariana Island and American Samoa
Information required by law from each person:
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Date of birth
  • Race
  • Relationship
  • Whether you own a home
Approximate time to complete census:
  • 10 minutes
Additional things to keep in mind:
  • Federal law protects your personal information that you share during the census.
  • Individuals will fill out a short-form questionnaire instead of the long-form.
    • The long-form, which was traditionally sent out to a small percentage of the population is being replaced by the American Community Survey (ACS), which is sent out annually to about 3 million households.
    • The ACS is sent to 1 in 40 households (about 2.5% of the U.S. population) to create estimates for the rest of the U.S. population. The data, however, is only collected in areas with populations of 65,000 or more people.
Next, we’ll go over how the 2010 U.S. census will be conducted.

2010 U.S. Census – How It Will Be Conducted

In 2010, approximately 140,000 census workers will go door-to-door to identify and record every residential address – estimated at around 145 million housing units – using hand-held computers with GPS systems. The GPS systems will be used by canvassers to better record addresses. Gone are the days of pencil and paper!

Additionally, for the first time ever, "group quarters" consisting of group homes, prisons, homeless shelters, dormitories, etc. will be included in the U.S. census coverage to improve the total count.

The Census Bureau will determine actual counts of persons dwelling in U.S. residential structures, which include citizens, non-citizen legal residents, non-citizen long-term visitors, and illegal immigrants. For years between the censuses, the Census Bureau issues estimates made using surveys and statistical models.

For more information on how to get involved with the 2010 census, see the links below.


Government, non-profit, corporate or community organizations can become "partners" with the Census Bureau in order to achieve its goal of a complete count at:

Potential 2010 U.S. census jobs may be found at:

Next, we’ll go over a brief 2010 U.S. census timeline and some interesting statistics.

2010 U.S. Census Timeline & Interesting Statistics

Spring 2009:

About 140,000 census canvassers go door-to-door across the country to identify and record every residential address – about 145 million housing units.

February – March 2010:

U.S. census questionnaires mailed to homes throughout the country.

March 2010 – March 2011:

Census Bureau analyzes all the information gathered by the 2010 census.

March 2011:

Census Bureau delivers redistricting data to each state for their members in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Some interesting statistics for 2010 U.S. Census:  

Number of cities and towns covered by census:


Number of counties covered by census: 3,141
Number of cities and towns covered by ACS*: 520
Number of counties covered by ACS*: 788

*Remember, ACS stands for "American Community Survey," which collects more detailed information than the short-form survey that most people will be asked to fill out. The ACS also will only be sent to about 2.5% of the U.S. population, and only to those people living in areas with populations of 65,000 or more.

Rate of response to U.S. census questionnaires (e.g. people that actually filled out the questionnaires and mailed them in):
  • 1990: 65%
  • 2000: 67%
  • 2010 goal: 69%
Next, we discuss the potential expected shift in the U.S. House of Representatives due to the 2010 survey.

Potential Shift of U.S. House Representation

Nearly two dozen states may see shifts in the number of members they will have in the U.S. House of Representatives. Many northeast states are expected to lose U.S. House seats, while southern states are expected to gain seats. However, California is expected to lose some of its 53 representatives.

States expected to gain Representatives States expected to lose Representatives
New Mexico
New York

New Jersey

Other potential states that may lose Representatives include: Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

Finally, we’ll end this article with some main points to consider.


In April 2009, over 60,000 Americans were hired by the Census Bureau to assist in collecting information for the 2010 census. The census still remains a major undertaking, even with modern technology like GPS tracking systems. In fact, the U.S. census accounts for the largest peacetime mobilization by civilian workers in the United States!

With all that said, make sure to fill out your U.S. census survey when you receive it by mail. The short-form should only take about 10 minutes to complete. Remember, filing out the survey is required by law.

© 2009-2010 ThinkingLegal, LLC. All rights reserved.