Census History and 20th-Century Firsts

Updated July 10, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

The census has grown with the country

This article was posted on October 1, 2000.


1990 Census Criticized

The Census Bureau was heavily criticized following the 1990 census, which missed an estimated 8.4 million people and counted some 4.4 million people twice.

An additional 13 million people were counted in the wrong place, made up, or included by mistake. Part of the problem has been the declining levels of census participation.

Some 30 million households did not respond, partly because they may not have been able to read English.


The Census Bureau expects the state population count to be completed by Dec. 31, 2000. The population of a given state or municipality is the basis for the distribution of an estimated $185 billion in federal funds, for everything from schools, highway and mass transit, aid to the elderly, and hospitals, to name a few.

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The census has come a long way. In 1790, a group of federal marshals rode on horseback through the original 13 states counting the U.S. population, which was then just shy of four million.

Today, with its use of the Internet, sophisticated computers, and advanced statistical analysis, the census is more accurate and comprehensive than ever.

Required by the Constitution

That first census was the product of political compromise. The U.S. Constitution requires a census every ten years to determine how many members of Congress can be allocated to each state.

The founding fathers suspected that each state would try to augment its population to increase its representation. So, the first census was also used to allocate the cost of the Revolutionary War, with more populous states paying more. Since no state would want to pay more than its fair share, it was thought that each would seek a truly accurate count.

Low-Tech First Census

In those days, there was no form to fill out; marshals asked the questions and recorded the results in a multitude of notebooks or whatever bits of paper were handy. It took 18 months to count 3.9 million inhabitants. They recorded the number of free persons by sex and color, and slaves. Slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person, while Indians were not taxed and therefore excluded.

Evolution of the Census

With each new decade, the form and purpose of the census evolved somewhat:

  • Between 1790 and 1840 the number of census questions ballooned from six to over 70.
  • In 1850 Congress revised the process, including questions on national birth and occupation and establishing a Census Office.
  • After the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment abolished the three-fifths compromise.
  • The Fourteenth Amendment sought to use the census to enforce the enfranchisement of freed blacks. Adult male citizens who were denied voting rights would affect an individual state's representation.
  • The census of 1890 was the first to be tabulated by machine.

20th-Century Firsts

  • The 1920 census indicated that for the first time more Americans lived in cities than rural areas.
  • During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the census department began measuring unemployment and income.
  • The first non-defense computer was developed to tabulate the 1950 census.
  • In the 1962 Baker vs. Carr decision, the U.S. Supreme Court made its famous "one man one vote" ruling, requiring that legislative boundaries in each state must also contain equal populations.
  • Mail-in forms took precedence over door-to-door enumerators in 1970.
  • In January 1999, the Supreme Court ruled that statistical sampling—which allows for the estimation of certain populations, such as the homeless or minorities—could not be used to redistribute Congressional seats.

A Massive Undertaking

Employing some 860,000 temporary workers and costing $6 billion, Census 2000 is the largest peacetime mobilization of resources and personnel. Despite concerns that completing the count too quickly could affect accuracy, Census 2000 has generally gone relatively smoothly.

Officials reported that 67% of the 120 million families in the U.S.—2% more than in 1990—had returned their forms by the April 17 deadline. By early July, census workers had either counted or declared vacant the 42 million housing units that did not return a questionnaire in the mail.

In an effort to reach everyone, Census 2000 used forms printed in six languages: English, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, spoken in the Philippines.

Race & Ethnicity Data

The federal government also relies on race and ethnicity data collected by the census to determine whether states and municipalities are in compliance with Voting Rights Act of 1964.

Racial information will include 63 categories of race in combination with various Hispanic designations, making a total of 126 acknowledged racial identities. In response to critics who charge that too much attention is paid to racial categorizing, officials point out that all censuses since the first survey in 1790 have included a question on race.
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