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Census: The Struggle for Equity Continues


Conducting the Census became law 230 years ago under President George Washington. Homesteads were visited. People were counted. In a limited way, race, sex and age and “free or slave status” were noted. Results were reported to the President and posted in public places for citizens to see. Like many efforts of such magnitude, the Census had a humble beginning.


The goal in 1790 was to come up with an equitable plan for representation (apportionment), distribution of the burden of war, and taxation, across diverse states and territories. To do that, Congress needed some basic population data, and they needed to structure the Census in such a way that states would be least likely to exaggerate their numbers high or low to gain an advantage. Since then, the Census has greatly evolved and improved as a reflection of social, political and economic changes in our country. And there’s always more to be done.


By 1850, the Census gathered more detail, including the names of all free persons as well as information on taxes, schools, wages, crime, estate values and mortality. Information was also gathered regarding agriculture, mining, commerce, manufacturing, education and general resources.


The U.S. Census Bureau was one of the earliest federal agencies to employ women in 1880. More than 50 percent of its workforce were women by 1909; 11 years before the 19th Amendment was passed.

The 1890 Census gathered a record-setting amount of information and cost $11.5 million. U.S. population had grown from over 3.9 million a century earlier to over 62 million that year. In 1910, Native Americans, the First Peoples of our nation, were counted in the Census.


In 1920, America experienced a major population shift from rural to urban areas. The Census began to ask for naturalization status and “mother tongue.” No questions were asked about children. Ag and manufacturing data were surveyed separately.


The 1940 Census introduced use of advanced statistical techniques including probability sampling, which was hotly debated in Washington D.C. There was concern, coming out of the Depression, about understanding the need for public housing programs. Questions were asked about employment status, income and internal migration.


By 1960, the first mail-out Census was conducted as the primary way to collect data. Roughly 80% of Americans resided in urban/suburban areas. New questions were added regarding place of employment and means of transportation.


In 1980, the Census form included a place to indicate Spanish/Hispanic heritage. Questions were added about mortgage, shelter costs, housing characteristics and owner characteristics as efforts were taken to count homeless or transient people. Detroit and New York City filed suit against the Census for under-counting of African American citizens.


In 2000, the Census introduced the shortest form since 1820, with 7 questions on the short form, and an option to do it online. For the first time, respondents could check as many categories under Race/Ethnicity as necessary; and grandparents could make note if they were caregivers. Questions were expanded regarding disabilities to provide better data on communities’ special needs.


The 2010 Census included same-sex married couples and unmarried partners in the count. Social questions were provided separately in the American Community Survey. A “Teach Census Week” helped educate students about the history, purpose and value of the Census.

Along with representation, the Census provides data that can be used to support a fair share of federal funds spent on a given region’s schools, hospitals, roads, public works and other vital programs.


Businesses use census data to decide where to build factories, offices and stores, which influences job creation. Developers use the data in decisions about where to invest in building new or revitalized neighborhoods. Local governments use the data for planning for public safety and emergency preparedness. Residents use the data to support community initiatives involving legislation, quality-of-life and consumer advocacy.