U.S. Census Timeline

Updated June 26, 2019 | Infoplease Staff

Here is a look at how the U.S. Census was established, how it has changed, and its notable events since it was included in Article 1 of the Constitution in 1787. The Census is administered every 10 years, and the next Census will begin in April 2020.

Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution requires that a census of the population be conducted every ten years so that the representatives in Congress and direct taxes might be apportioned.
Federal marshals conduct the first census by going door-to-door through the 13 states plus the districts of Maine, Vermont, Kentucky, and the Southwest Territory (Tennessee). The marshals record the name of every householder and count the occupants in each house. African-American slaves are counted as three-fifths of a person, and American Indians, who do not pay taxes, are excluded. The census is completed in 18 months at a cost of $45,000. The census counts 3.9 million people.
Congress directs the federal marshals and their assistants to take “an account of the several manufacturing establishments and manufactures within their districts” as part of the 1810 census.
The first printed forms are used for collecting census data. Prior to this, marshals used sheets of paper or notebooks.
Questions on agriculture, mining, and fishing are added to the census. Since the first census in 1790, the number of census questions has ballooned from 6 to more than 70.
All free persons, rather than just the head of house, are recorded by name, along with their occupation and place of birth. Questions on social issues—taxation, churches, poverty, and crime—are added to the census.
The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution is ratified, ending the three-fifths counting rule for African Americans.
Although individuals have been identified as white or black since the 1790 census, American Indians are first enumerated in the 1870 census. (However, those in the Indian Territory or on reservations are not included in the official U.S. population count used for congressional apportionment until 1890.) The Chinese population is also counted for the first time in the 1870 census.
Congress establishes a census office in the Department of the Interior, and the U.S. marshals who have previously collected census data are replaced by professional enumerators.
For the first time simple machines are used to tabulate census data.
Congress authorizes a permanent census office, which is transferred the following year to the Department of Commerce and Labor. (In 1913, when Commerce and Labor become separate departments, the U.S. Census Bureau is placed in the Department of Commerce.)
Following the onset of the Great Depression, the Census Bureau began asking questions about unemployment and income.
Statistical sampling techniques are introduced, which allow the Census Bureau to create a “long form” answered by only a subset of the population.
For the first time an electronic computer, UNIVAC I, is used to help tabulate results.
In an effort to move toward self-enumeration, census forms are mailed to urban households to be completed and mailed back to the Census Bureau.
Mail-in forms take precedence over door-to-door enumerators. For the first time, respondents are asked to check off whether they are of Spanish or Hispanic origin or descent.
Although 1980 census is considered one of the most accurate in recent decades, New York City and civil rights groups file numerous lawsuits challenging the final results.
The 1990 census is the first to be less accurate than the one preceding it (an estimated 8.4 million people are missed while another 4.4 million are counted twice). The problem is partly blamed on declining census participation: the response rate for Census 1990 is only 65%.
The Supreme Court rules that statistical sampling—which allows for the estimation of certain populations, such as the homeless or minorities—cannot not be used to apportion congressional seats, although it can be used for other purposes.
Employing some 860,000 temporary workers and costing $6 billion, Census 2000 is the largest peacetime mobilization of resources and personnel. For the first time, the Census Bureau runs a nationwide advertising campaign to encourage people to fill out their forms. The national Final Reponse Rate for the 2000 Census is 67%, much better than the expected 61% Final Response Rate.
New Commerce Secretary Gary Locke vows to place emphasis on the 2010 Census, which was considered mismanaged under the Bush administration. Damaging decisions made by the Bush administration included pushing the date to double-check the Census numbers to October 2010. The numbers are first gathered in April and usually double-checked in June or July. This delay can decrease the accuracy of the data.
New for Census 2010, English/Spranish bilingual questionnaires are sent to about 13 million households in areas that have a high concentration of Hispanics to increase the rate of census returns. Another initiative is the second-chance card, sent to households that fail to answer the census between February and March. Finally, this year married same-sex couples will be counted on the census. In 2000, same-sex marriage was not legal; today same-sex couples can get married in six states.
According to Census data released in the spring of 2012, white births were no longer in the majority in the United States. Over a 12-month period which ended in July 2011, Asians, blacks, Hispanics and mixed races made up 50.4 percent of all births, becoming a majority for the first time in the history of the United States.

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