How the Census Works

Why Is the Census Important?

Indians, 1910 Census Indians, 1910 Census
A census enumerator interviews Winnebago Indians in Wisconsin in 1910. U.S. Census Bureau

Participating in the census is in everyone's best interest, because the information on the forms is used by decision-makers to determine which communities, schools, hospitals and roads need federal funding.

Here are just a few examples of important uses for census numbers:

  • The federal government uses census numbers to allocate more than $675 billion in federal funds annually for community programs and services, such as education programs, housing and community development, health care services for the elderly and job training.
  • State, local and tribal governments use census information for planning and allocating funds for new school construction, libraries, highway safety and public transportation systems, new roads and bridges, location of police and fire departments and many other projects.
  • Community organizations use census information to develop social service programs, community action projects, senior lunch programs and child care centers.
  • Businesses use the numbers to decide where to locate factories, shopping centers, movie theaters, banks and offices — activities that often lead to new jobs.
  • The U.S. Congress uses the census totals to determine how many seats a state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives. In addition, states use the numbers to allocate seats in their law-making bodies.

If you need closer-to-home reasons for completing your census form, the Census Bureau suggests that you consider the following:

  • Census numbers help communities work out strategies to deal with traffic congestion or overcrowded schools. Nonprofit organizations use census numbers to estimate the number of potential volunteers in communities across the nation.
  • Many 911 emergency systems are based on maps developed for the last census. Census information helps health providers predict the spread of diseases through communities with children or elderly people. And when disasters hit, the census tells rescuers how many people will need their help.
  • Census numbers help industry reduce financial risk and locate potential markets. This means that businesses can determine the marketability of potential products.
  • It helps with genealogy research. Although individual records are held confidential for 72 years, you can request a certificate from past censuses that can be used to establish your age, residence or relationship — information that could qualify you for a pension, establish citizenship or obtain an inheritance. (Right now, American children may be using past census information to do their homework.)