How the Census Works

What's on the Form?
The 2010 census form had just 10 questions.
The 2010 census form had just 10 questions.
U.S. Census Bureau

During the 2000 census, the Census Bureau mailed out about 83 million short forms (with seven questions) and 15 million long forms (with 52 questions). For the 2010 census, the bureau sent only one form with 10 questions. The 10 questions were designed to collect only the most critical demographic data in the most straightforward way.

The first question on the form asked how many people were living in the household on April 1, 2010. Since respondents sometimes forget to count nonfamily members living in the house, the bureau asked in question two: "Were there any additional people staying here April 1, 2010 that you did not include in Question 1?" As a third safeguard, the 2010 census form then asked respondents to list the names of everyone living in the household.

Each member of the household was asked to answer some basic demographic questions about sex, age, race, Hispanic origin, and relationship to the head of the household. Starting with the 2000 census, respondents were allowed to indicate more than one race. These questions are essential for the federal government to plan for future Social Security and Medicare demands, and to ensure state compliance with antidiscrimination laws like the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act [source: U.S. Census Bureau].

Although there was space on the 2010 form for 12 names, there wasn't room for each person to complete a full list of demographic questions. For households with more than six members, the bureau followed up by phone or in person for additional information.

To ensure the most accurate count, the 2010 census form gave specific instructions about who should and should not be included in the household. For example, if someone was away at college, in prison or in the military on April 1, 2010, he should not have been included as a member of the household. The danger is that he will be counted again at the college, military base or prison.

One reason for the slimmed down census form, is the switch to the American Community Survey for the more in-depth questions. Since 2005, a random sample of Americans has been sent this survey annually. Questions range from type of housing lived in, to income to cost of utilities to education achievement. If you are selected to receive this form, you are required to answer it. The reason for the switch was to provide data that was more current than every 10 years to federal agencies and state governments. Each year 3.5 million addresses are selected [sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Westchester County].

Author's Note: How the Census Works

There is something nostalgic about participating in the census. This thing has been around since the birth of the nation, and it's so strikingly simple — counting people. I love that despite technological upgrades and better marketing, we still have to recruit an army of census workers to go door-to-door counting people without much more than paper and pens. In the age of secret NSA surveillance programs and other government shenanigans, it's understandable that some people question the requirement to provide their personal information to such a large federal agency, but I don't ascribe to the conspiracy theories. I'd rather believe that I'm helping to paint an accurate picture of America at the dawn of the 21st century.

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  • Durando, Jessica. "2010 Census Key Dates." USA Today. March 1, 2010. (Aug. 16, 2013)
  • El Nasser, Haya and Copeland, Larry. "Census to cost $1.6 billion less than budgeted." USA Today. Aug. 27, 2010. (Aug. 16, 2013)
  • El Nasser, Haya and Paul Overberg.Census Continues to Undercount Blacks, Hispanics and Kids. USA Today. May 23, 2013. (Aug. 20, 2013)
  • Farley, Robert. "Michele Bachmann claims Constitution only requires you to answer how many people are in your household." June 25, 2009. (Aug.16, 2013)
  • The Leadership Conference. "Census Timeline." (Aug. 16, 2013)
  • Luhby, Tami. "Can GPS make the Census better?" CNN Money. July 1, 2009. (Aug. 16, 2013)
  • Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives. "Member FAQs: What is the size of the House membership and how is it determined?" (Aug. 16, 2013)
  • Roberts, Sam. "1 in 3 Americans Failed to Return Census Forms." The New York Times. April 16, 2010. (Aug. 16, 2013)
  • Statistics Canada. "North America's First Census." (Aug. 18, 2013)
  • U.S. Census Bureau. "American Community Survey." (Aug. 20, 2013)
  • U.S. Census Bureau. "2010 Census Forms Arrive in 120 Million Mailboxes Across Nation." March 15, 2010. (Aug. 16, 2013)
  • U.S. Census Bureau. "Apportionment Population and Numbers of Representatives, By State: 2010 Census." (Aug. 16, 2010) Population 2010.pdf
  • U.S. Census Bureau. "Center of Population." (Aug. 16, 2013)
  • U.S. Census Bureau. "How It Benefits Your Community." (Aug. 16, 2013)
  • U.S. Census Bureau. "A New Portrait of America, First 2010 Census Results." Dec. 23, 2010. (Aug. 16, 2013)
  • U.S. Census Bureau. "Population Distribution and Change: 2000 to 2010." March 2011. (Aug. 16, 2013)
  • U.S. Census Bureau. "The Questions on the Form." (Aug. 16, 2013)
  • Westchester County. "Census and Statistics." March 12, 2013. (Aug. 24, 2013)

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