The census has grown with the country
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:
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.