In less than 100 days, the 2020 Census will survey Americans across the country, attempting to take a snapshot of America through a statistical lens.
Participation in the decennial survey is categorized as a “civic duty” along with voting and jury duty. An October Pew Research Center survey found that while 98% of respondents had heard of the U.S. Census, 84% said they definitely/probably intend to participate in the 2020 census.
So, what is the census and how does it work?
A history lesson
The census is a constitutional power granted in Article 1, Section 2 with the idea to count every person living in America (not just citizens) to determine congressional seats in the House of Representatives through a process called apportionment.
The idea of a census was not new when the founders laid its constitutional framework. Under the rule of monarchs, a similar method had been used to tax, confiscate property and draft youth into military service, but the founders found a way to utilize these censuses to empower the people of the newly formed democratic republic.
The first census in American history was held in 1790.
With 13 states and 3.9 million people, the first census asked just six questions, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While the population has grown exponentially to include 50 states and nearly 330 million people, the census has been conducted every 10 years since then.
How it works
The process of collecting data for the census is the largest peacetime operation the nation performs.
In previous years, the Census Bureau has relied on mailed-in questionnaires for the information it needs, mobilizing Census-takers when households failed to submit a paper form.
This year will mark the first time that census questionnaires can be submitted via computer, tablet or smartphone.
Despite the integration of technology to simplify the process, approximately 400,000 to 450,000 Census-takers will be hired nationally for the 2020 Census.
What it does
In addition to determining the number of representatives for each state, the data collected serves a myriad of other purposes.
The Census data gathered by census-takers and in electronic or paper form is collected for local and national purposes.
Census data also determines how some $675 billion in federal funding is driven out to states and communities. The size of that share can have far-reaching impacts. The decennial count also helps real estate developers decide where to build, determines the location of public works like power plants and the need for other programs such as English as a second language classes at public schools, according to the U.S Census Bureau.
Questions & legal challenges
While the main purpose of the census is to count the number of people living in the country, questions beyond a general count, are, in fact, constitutional.
In 1901, a New York district court concluded that the Constitution does not limit the census to a headcount of the population, adding that other statistics can be gathered if deemed “necessary and proper.”
The census has grown to collect and review demographic data such as age, sex, race, household relationships, and property ownership.
There are numerous rules governing the questions that can be asked on the census and what can be done with the responses.
General census subjects must be disclosed to Congress three years prior to the census. Actual questions that will be on the questionnaire must be shared with Congress two years prior to the census.
The Trump administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census was met with fast and furious pushback. In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a citizenship question from being added to the questionnaire.
Then, Chief Justice John Roberts said the court “cannot ignore the disconnect between the decision made and the explanation given” by the administration.
After a short-lived push to fight the ruling and delay the census, President Donald Trump dropped the matter.
All census responses are confidential. According to Title 13 of U.S. Code, the data acquired by the Bureau can only be used to produce statistics.
A questionnaire from the Census Bureau will never ask for an individual’s Social Security number. Nor can information be shared with law or immigration enforcement agencies. It also cannot be used to determine an individual’s eligibility for any government programs or benefits.