10 Things You Didn’t Know About The Census

February 18, 2020

Census forms with Ben & Jerry's ice cream pints

Merry Census Year, everyone! Yes, the federal government will be conducting a census in 2020, and we’re pretty darn excited about it.

OK, maybe filling out a census form is not quite as fun as launching a new flavor, but the census is definitely a really big deal. It’s everyone’s chance to be counted—literally. And the truth is, being counted makes a much bigger difference than you might think.

Ready for a little census wisdom? Ten things you might not know about the census, coming right up.


  1. The census is mandated by the Constitution

    Yeah, America and the census go way back. Way back to Article 1, Section 2, to be precise. The first census was conducted in 1790, and we’ve been having them regularly ever since.

  2. We have one every 10 years

    By regularly, we mean every 10 years. Think about that: There’s been a census every decade for 230 years. That’s an impressive run of serious counting.

  3. The census counts all people, citizens and non-citizens alike

    The census doesn’t just count American citizens. It counts EVERYONE. Doesn’t matter who you are or how or when you got to this country, the census wants to know you’re here. Why? Well, we’ll get into that in a moment.

  4. Counting is really just the tip of the iceberg, though

    The census keeps track of a lot of information. Some of the questions it asks are pretty routine —name, date of birth, number of people in your household. But it also collects data on race, gender, marriage status (including whether your marriage is same-sex or opposite-sex), the type of home you live in, and so on. (A controversial Trump Administration proposal to include a question about citizenship status was blocked by the Supreme Court.) Bottom line: It’s looking to provide a snapshot of who we are as Americans in 2020. (Have a look at the form here.)

  5. Everyone’s responses to the census are private and protected

    This is an important point: Your responses to the census survey are private and protected by law and cannot be shared with law enforcement or any other government agency.

  6. Census data is used to redraw legislative districts and reapportion Congressional seats

    What does the government do with all the data it collects? A LOT. First off, it uses population counts to redraw legislative districts and reapportion Congressional seats. For example, if the census finds that a lot of people have moved out of a particular state, that state would likely have its number of congresspeople adjusted downward, requiring its districts to be redrawn. Same deal but in reverse for states whose populations rise: maybe they’d gain Congressional seats, which would also require its districts to be revised. This is a huge deal, and gets to the heart of how we operate and participate in our democracy.

  7. It’s used to distribute hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds

    Also at stake: Money, and lots of it. We’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds—$675 billion, to be more precise. That kind of cash gets spent on schools, roads, hospitals, public works, and so on, and where the money flows is determined by census data.

  8. It’s used to guide planning

    The kind of funding we were talking about, the kind that builds roads and public works and the like, doesn’t happen without a plan. Analysts can look at census results and determine, for example, whether an area with many more kids than there were a decade ago needs a new school.

  9. It’s used to guide emergency response

    Census data also helps emergency responders when there’s a natural disaster or some similar event. They’ll know where to focus their attention and how much aid to provide based on updated census numbers. Those numbers also help public health officials keep track of the spread of disease, for example, or tailor medical programs to a region’s needs.

  10. This year you can respond online!

    A lot of us here still feel a bit of a thrill in filling out the old-school paper form, but some might say that’s so 1880. The 2020 Census has an option for filing your form online, which is fast, secure, and way greener. Filling out the census, we should note, is not voluntary. Everybody living in the US (all 50 states, DC, and the five US territories) is required to do it. But why wouldn’t you? Filing that form makes sure that you’re properly represented in Washington, DC, that funds and services flow to where they’re most needed, and that accurate picture can be created of who we are as Americans in 2020.

The census officially kicks off on April 1, 2020. We can’t wait! Time to stand up and be counted.