What Is the Census and Why Is it Important?

What Is the Census and Why Is it Important?

March 3, 2020

What do the ancient Egyptians, Inca Empire, and Roman civilization have in common? They all conducted a census to count their citizens—and the United States does, too. Unlike South American cultures that used a quipu (or knot record) to count populations for the purposes of taxation, the U.S. conducts its census online, by phone, or by mail.

Approaching mid-March, the census helps determine how billions of dollars in federal funding are allocated among communities every year for the next decade. That funding “shapes many different aspects of every single community, no matter the size, no matter the location,” according to the Census 2020’s website

The U.S. Census is a Constitutionally mandated count of every single person in the country conducted once every 10 years. It consists of nine short questions that cover things like age, sex, and number of people in a household, and helps establish federal funding for transportation, emergency services, and health and human services programs such as Medicaid. For the Denver community alone, an accurate count means roughly $1.4 billion in funding each year. The Census count also determines if electoral districts—which represent a population in a state’s larger legislative body—need to be redrawn or adjusted.

On March 12 households will begin receiving information from the Census Bureau on how to respond to the 2020 census in one of three ways: online, by phone, or by mail. The official Census Day, when every home will have received an invitation to complete the Census, is April 1, 2020, though data collection continues through July. In December 2020, the Census Bureau is required by law to send census counts to the president and Congress and the results will be published by Dec. 31. The numbers not only determine funding and congressional representation but also serve as indicators of important nationwide trends.

“Historians and others, including genealogists, use past census records to do family searches and studies of communities at a micro level.”

– Rebecca Hunt, PhD, associate professor and co-director of the Public History Program

Find out how you can get involved.

Why the Census Matters

Many people wonder why the census matters. In actuality, the data collected influences the lives of all people living in the U.S. 

First of all, the 2020 Census determines congressional representation. Rebecca Hunt, PhD, associate professor C/T and co-director of the Public History Program, puts it simply: “The census was and is still used to determine how many people we had, not just nationally but in each state. This helped determine how many Congressmen each state got.” Between censuses, state populations can change substantially. Between 2000 and 2010, for example, population increases and decreases caused eight states to gain seats and 10 states to lose seats in the House of Representatives, according to census.gov. 

The census also determines how the country allocates hundreds of billions of dollars. Government funding shaped by census data affects everything from your morning commute (federal funding goes toward highways and public transportation) to your safety (government money pays for police and firefighters). The census count determines how federal funding gets distributed in a myriad of ways, influencing preschool programs, teacher grants, child abuse prevention, rural support projects, etc.

Census.gov also notes that “the U.S. Census Bureau tracks all kinds of data, from age, sex, and race to types of housing or average household size.” This helps the government understand trends. The census might show that Millennials are leaving the two coasts and moving into smaller midwestern cities or that Baby Boomers are moving from the suburbs into downtown areas. 

Information like this is particularly valuable for researchers. “Historians and others, including genealogists, use past census records to do family searches and studies of communities at a micro level,” Hunt said. She used census records for her book on immigrant communities in two Denver neighborhoods.

Four students walking together near trees

The Citizenship Question

The census counts everyone. Historically, this has created friction: “Since the census counts all residents, not just citizens, there have been repeated attempts to use it to enforce xenophobic agendas,” Hunt explains. 

Assistant Professor Edelina Burciaga, PhD, who teaches in the Sociology Department and focuses on immigration and Latinx populations, said, “The current administration’s attempt to have a citizenship question added to the 2020 status has had lasting consequences.”

Hunt and Burciaga both point out that the citizenship question is not on the 2020 Census. Court rulings against the Trump administration forced the Department of Commerce, which conducts the census, to omit the question about citizenship status. “The 2020 Census and Confidentiality” states, “Your answers can only be used to produce statistics—they cannot be used against you in any way.” Census.gov stresses that under Title 13 of the U.S. Code, the Census Bureau cannot release any identifiable information about people or businesses. 

But mistrust may negatively affect the population count. This means education about the census and confidentiality is key. “Community-based organizations are trying to allay concerns,” Burciaga said. In 2019, the Auraria Tri-institutional Constitution Day Committee held an event focused on the U.S. census. “We had census officials meet with students to ensure that they knew it would be safe to fill out the census,” Hunt explained.


Make a Difference. Be Counted.

In the upcoming months, the Census Bureau and other organizations will ramp up efforts to inform communities on the importance of the decennial count. This includes Complete Count Committees charged with peer-to-peer outreach on college campuses and in hard-to-count populations, such as young children and racial and ethnic minorities. The goal is to ensure every single person is counted—and to guarantee that their personal information is protected.

People sitting on a bench talking.