How the Census Works


What's on the 2020 Census Form?

There used to be two census questionnaires, known as the "short-form" and the "long-form" questionnaire. From 1970 through 2000, most households received the shorter version, which primarily asked questions about the number of people living in the household and their characteristics (age, sex, race, etc.). A smaller random sample received the longer version, which included detailed demographic and economic data (52 total questions). Starting with the 2010 census, everyone now gets the shorter form, which had 10 total questions in 2010 and may have only one more in 2020.

So what will the exact questions be on the 2020 census? We won't know for sure until they're published, but we do have the planned questions that were submitted to Congress by the Census Bureau in 2018:

  1. "How many people were living or staying in this house, apartment or mobile home on April 1, 2020?" This question seems straightforward, but often causes the most confusion. As the form will explain in its instructions, households should only count the number of people currently living or staying in the home, not family members who are currently living elsewhere (college, military, prison, nursing home, etc.) Also, there could be people living in the home who aren't immediate family (nephew, boyfriend, paid boarder) but should be included in this count.
  2. "Were there any additional people staying here April 1, 2020 that you did not include in Question 1?" This is a safeguard to double-check that households didn't leave out people that should have been counted.
  3. "Is this house, apartment or mobile home..." Owned, rented, or occupied without payment of any kind? And if it's owned, do you have a mortgage? This question, asked since 1890, helps the government know if there's enough housing for everyone across all demographics.
  4. "What's your telephone number?" In case they need to call to clarify an answer.
  5. "What is Person 1's name?" "Person 1" is the individual who owns or rents the house. The questionnaire starts with a series of questions about the characteristics of Person 1, namely:
  6. "What is this person's sex?" For 2020, there are still only two possible answers for this question: male or female.
  7. "What is this person's age and what is their date of birth?" The age question is asked in two different ways to improve accuracy.
  8. "Is this person Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?" Since 1970, the census has asked about Hispanic origin separate from race, since people of Hispanic or Latino origin can be of many different races: white, black, Native American, etc. There was a proposal to combine the race and Hispanic origin questions into one category as it has caused confusion among responders in the past. Since that change was not approved, the census question remains as it was before.
  9. "What is this person's race?" Racial statistics are used to ensure that government-funded programs serve all Americans equally and fairly. There are 14 racial designations, plus room to write in more specific answers, such as a particular Native American tribe. This year for the first time, if a person selects the "white" or "black" categories they get to indicate their ethnic origins, such as "German," "Lebanese," "African American," "Jamaican," etc. There are also check boxes to specify country of origin if a person checks Asian/Pacific Islander such as "Vietnamese, "Samoan," etc.
  10. Does Person 1 sometimes live or stay somewhere else? If the answer is "yes," the respondent can check a box for college, prison, military service, or with another relative, among other options.
  11. "Is this person a citizen of the United States?" This controversial new question, planned to be included on the 2020 census, hasn't been asked since 1950. The Supreme Court has blocked the addition of this question for now saying that the court "cannot ignore the disconnect between the decision made and the explanation given" [source: Wang and Totenberg].

After Person 1 is done, the rest of the people in the household are asked the same batch of questions, plus the following:

"How is this person related to Person 1?" For the first time in 2020, there is an option to register same-sex relationships. Instead of choosing simply "husband or wife," which was how the 2010 census framed it, respondents to the 2020 census can choose either "Opposite-sex husband/wife/spouse" or "Same-sex husband/wife/spouse" in addition to "Opposite-sex unmarried partner" and "Same-sex unmarried partner."

Last editorial update on Jun 27, 2019 01:23:39 pm.

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