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The modern census


A census of the population—that is, a counting of the people within the boundaries of a country— has become indispensable to any modern government. How many people are there? What are their basic socioeconomic characteristics? Where do they live, and how are they affected by the processes of social and biological change? These questions arise daily in the governments of all industrially developed countries, not to mention the governments of those that are still developing.

Censuses have come to include many topics other than population. Censuses of manufactures, agriculture, mineral industries, housing, and business establishments are taken by many countries, often independently of the census of population.

The following discussion is concerned primarily with censuses of population, but many of the comments—especially the comments on methods, tabulation, and quality of results—apply with equal force to other kinds of censuses.

Some early censuses. Counting the people, or some portion of them, is a practice that is probably as old as government itself. No one knows which ruler first enumerated the men for military purposes, or drew up a list of households with a view to taxing them. Figures obtained from censuses have long served as items of political propaganda, particularly in order to justify territorial expansion.

Population counts were reported in ancient Japan and were taken by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Hebrews, Persians, and Romans. Many of these early censuses appear to have covered only part of the population, often the men of military age, and the results were generally treated as state secrets. In Europe censuses on a city-wide basis or, as in Switzerland, on a canton-wide basis, were reported in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. A 1449 census of Nuremberg presumably was taken to determine the needed food supplies when a siege was threatened. The city of Madras in India reportedly took a census in 1687.

Various censuses have been claimed as the first held in modern times with purposes and methods resembling those of today. Among these are a census in New France (the early possessions of France in North America) taken at intervals between 1665 and 1754 and a census in Sweden in 1749. Census taking began early in the North American and South American colonies. The British Board of Trade ordered 27 censuses in the North American colonies between 1635 and 1776, and censuses were taken by these former colonies between independence in 1776 and the establishment of the United States.

The oldest continuous periodic census is that of the United States, which has been conducted every ten years since 1790. The census of the United Kingdom dates back to 1801, and a census has been taken there every ten years except in 1941, during World War II.

If one were to define a modern census as one in which information is collected separately about each individual instead of each household, then the beginning of modern censuses would have to be dated about the middle of the nineteenth century. Censuses along these lines were taken in Brussels in 1842, in all Belgium in 1846, in Boston in 1845, and in the entire United States in 1850. This is the procedure that is now generally in use.

International activities. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the International Statistical Institute recommended international publication of the results of all censuses. Around the turn of the century the institute repeated its recommendation, pointing out that the results of some 68 different censuses were available, covering about 43 per cent of the world’s population. The institute had already adopted, in 1897, a set of rules for conducting censuses and presenting their results, while the whole topic had been discussed by the International Demographic Congress as early as 1878.

One of the early proposals considered by the United Nations was that it develop plans for a 1950 world census of population. Although it found that conditions were not ripe for such an effort, the United Nations took steps to foster census taking and made recommendations to improve the comparability of results. The Inter American Statistical Institute meantime had undertaken a program for the 1950 Census of the Americas, and 18 of the 21 countries in the Americas took censuses between 1945 and 1954. Throughout the world at least 150 areas took censuses in this period, collecting individual data on more than 2 billion people. For the decade centered on 1960, the number of censuses was about 180, including 2.2 billion people.

The use of censuses. The reasons for taking a census vary with the needs of the countries involved. The current concern with social and economic development is one of the prime reasons. Much information is needed in order to institute programs that will improve health, literacy, education, income, levels of living, supplies of food and other consumer goods, agricultural production, and industrial output. Census data are also collected in order to determine the representativeness of legislative bodies, the number of persons eligible to vote, and the areas or groups that have a claim to benefits deriving from the state.

The census provides a basis for much demographic, economic, and social research. It makes possible the identification and description of such groups as the labor force, economically dependent persons, recent migrants to cities, rural and urban populations, racial or religious minorities, refugees, scientific and technical workers, and others. Comparisons of successive censuses show changes in the numbers, characteristics, and location of the population. The census returns are also used as a frame from which samples are selected for subsequent inquiries.

The modern census

The United Nations (1958, p. 4) gives the following definition of a modern population census: “A census of population may be defined as the total process of collecting, compiling and publishing demographic, economic and social data pertaining, at a specified time or times, to all persons in a country or delimited territory.”

It also listed six essential features of a census, as follows. (1) A census must have national sponsorship. Only a national government can provide the necessary resources and enact suitable legislation, although provincial and local governments may share a part of the responsibility and sometimes a part of the cost. (2) A census must cover a precisely defined territory, boundary changes that affect comparisons between successive censuses should be clearly and explicitly stated. (3) All persons in the scope of the census must be included without duplication or omission. (4) The people must be counted as of a fixed time. Persons born after the census date are to be excluded, and persons who die after the census date are to be included. Some information, such as that relating to labor force participation or migration, may relate not to the census date but to another period, which must be clearly defined. (5) Census data must be obtained separately for each individual. This does not preclude making some entries for the entire household—and in exceptional circumstances summarized information for a group of persons may be acceptable—but the objective of a modern census, insofar as possible, is to collect data separately for each individual. (6) The data from a census must be published. Although at one time census reports were treated as state secrets, it is now recognized that a census is not complete until the data are compiled and published.

What is included. The content of a census, no less than its purpose, is determined by the country’s needs at the time. Questions of high importance in one country may be of relatively little importance in another, and questions of great significance at one time may be of little significance later. Every national census has changed over the years. Conditions in the country, alternative sources of information, and the ability of the census organization to provide the proposed information chiefly determine the census content.

The United Nations has approved a set of recommendations for national population censuses that includes the following list of question topics: location at time of census and/or place of usual residence, relation to head of household or family, sex, age, marital status, place of birth, citizenship, whether economically active or not, occupation, industry, status (as employer, employee, etc.), language, ethnic or nationality characteristics, literacy, level of education, school attendance, and the number of children born to each woman (Principles and Recommendations … 1958). For countries that could not include all items in the list, the following were suggested as a minimum: sex, age, marital status, and some indication of economic activity. Each item listed, of course, requires specific definition. Some items, such as marital status, type of economic activity, or level of education, apply to only part of the population.

Collection of data. Discussions of census methods generally distinguish between a count based on the actual location of the population on the census date and one which relates each person to the place of which he is a resident. Frequently residence is interpreted as the place where the person usually lives, although “usual residence” has no statutory meaning. On either basis national totals are usually about equal; community totals, however, may differ substantially.

To facilitate international comparison, the United Nations (Principles and Recommendations … 1958) has suggested the adoption of an “international conventional total.” This would include all persons present in the country on the census date except foreign military, naval, and diplomatic personnel: it would also include the country’s own military, naval and diplomatic personnel and their families located abroad, and merchant seamen normally resident in the country but at sea on the census date. The same document recommends that counts or estimates of the following groups should be given where feasible: indigenous inhabitants and nomadic tribes, civilian national residents temporarily abroad on the census date, and civilian aliens temporarily in the country on the census date. This is because whether or not these groups are included in a national census is usually determined by the laws and needs of each country; thus detailed comparisons between national totals can be made only if separate enumerations of these groups are made available.

Customarily two basic methods of collecting census data are recognized—direct enumeration and self-enumeration. Under the direct enumeration system, an enumerator collects information directly from the individual concerned, the head of the household, or some other member of the household who may be authorized to report for him. Under the self-enumeration system, the questionnaire is given to the individual, or the head of the household, who is expected to enter the required information and return the questionnaire to the census office. In self-enumeration the enumerator often delivers and collects the questionnaire. He may assist persons in making the entries, and he is responsible for assuring the accuracy and completeness of the completed questionnaires.

In a few countries the people are required to present themselves at a designated place to be enumerated. In a few others the population is immobilized on the census date, and no one is permitted on the streets unless he has been enumerated. In the great majority of cases the census enumerator seeks out the potential respondents and delivers questionnaires to them or asks them directly for the required information.

Census legislation normally provides that respondents must give full and correct information. This information must be given confidential treatment by all census employees. For persons who do not wish to have other members of their households or local officials see the information about themselves, census offices have provided special forms on which the person can insert the information and send it directly to the local, regional, or national office.

Population registers and lists of households, where available, are often used to help make the census complete. In some censuses the first step in the field work is to establish a list of housing units. The numbers assigned to these units are then used to control the completeness of the enumeration.

The questionnaire must be designed to permit ready entry of the required information and also be adapted to the tabulation procedure. In self-enumeration there is customarily a separate form for each household, with space for entering information for each household member. When information is collected directly by enumerators they may carry a separate form for each household or a form on which information is recorded for a number of households. Sometimes a separate document is used for each person.

Some countries have a long-established tradition of taking a census once every ten years, a few countries require one every five years, but most countries take a census when it is needed and do not have a fixed date. In a few unusual situations censuses have been taken more often than once in five years. Whether by law or by custom, the ten-year term appears to be most common.

In an increasing number of countries a pilot census is taken before the full census to test the inquiries, the procedures, the development of the field organization, and sometimes the tabulation program.

Use of sampling. Sampling has been extensively used in connection with censuses, although a census in principle requires that information be collected for each person. The term “sample census,” which is sometimes used, is a misnomer; a collection of information relating to only a specified part of a population should be termed a sample survey. In some censuses a part of the questions are asked of only a sample of all individuals; in this way more information can be collected without a comparable increase in respondent burden or tabulation work load. Many countries base some tabulations on a sample of the population instead of the total to provide preliminary totals for early release or to reduce the cost of some final tabulations. Sampling has been used to control the quality of the work at several stages of the processing of the data. In some countries a sample has been selected for a pretest and the resulting data have been used to validate the processing operations.

Tabulation of results. To be useful, individual census returns must be converted to statistical summaries. Tabulation methods vary from simple hand counts to processing on high-speed electronic computers. Processing may be done in the field, in provincial offices, or at the central office.

Questionnaires as received from the enumerators must be reviewed to locate incomplete or inconsistent entries. Procedures have been developed for correcting such errors by utilizing other information on the questionnaires or by using probability distributions based on data from other sources. In many instances the entries on the schedule must be converted to a numerical or other suitable code to facilitate counting and grouping into appropriate categories.

The most common procedure for grouping the entries is to punch cards and tabulate them by mechanical means. More recently, electronic computers have been adapted to this work, and devices have been developed to transfer the original questionnaire entries directly to the magnetic tape used in these computers. The capacity and speed of the computers have led to important advances in the amount of material tabulated and in the timeliness of the publications.

Completeness and accuracy. In view of the many public and private uses for census data, there is increasing concern with the quality of the results in terms both of completeness of coverage and accuracy of returns.

Completeness of coverage has received major attention. Unless special precautions are taken, some individuals may not be counted and some areas may not be enumerated. Undercounts of the population are more frequent than overcounts, although a few zealous census officials have been known to overcount the population of an area. Omission of individuals may arise from incomplete enumeration of a household or an area. Underenumeration has been particularly marked in the case of infants and young adults who are highly mobile or who lack firm occupational attachments. In cultures where men are considered more valuable than women, the number of women may be understated. In a few instances a fear that the census may be used for military conscription has led to some omission of men or to misreporting them as women.

Reporting residence may present problems. Some persons, such as migratory workers, have no usual place of residence. Others, such as college students, members of the armed forces, and persons engaged in long-distance transportation, may live away from their families for short or extended periods. Unless precise instructions are given for reporting these persons, they may be counted twice or not at all.

Age is often misreported either because people see some advantage in giving the wrong age or because they do not know their correct age. In many countries births are not recorded, and age is not precisely known. Some reasons for misreporting are that a person believes that despite pledges of confidentialness, the data will be used to his disadvantage; a parent believes that overstating a young child’s age may gain him entrance to school or that overstating an older child’s age may free him from compulsory school attendance; an older person may overstate his age to get social security benefits or to acquire the higher status sometimes accorded to the very old. Often people report a number ending in zero or five—even when asked for year of birth.

Nationality, citizenship, and mother tongue are particularly subject to misstatement when the correct answer may be considered detrimental in the context of the political situation of the group controlling the area.

Improvement of quality. Public confidence in the census greatly affects accuracy of returns. Public confidence can often be increased through an informational campaign, which explains that the data about any individual cannot be used to his detriment. Police officers, who are used as enumerators in some countries because of their availability and authority, are specifically excluded in others because they may give the impression that the information is not collected solely for statistical purposes.

To improve the quality of results, research has been devoted to reliability of response, role of enumerators, question wording, and attitudes of respondents in different situations. Increased attention is also being given to training the temporary field forces in census methods and concepts and in training the office staff in principles of editing and coding.

The quality of census statistics can often be determined by analyzing them after the complete census tabulations have been published. Formerly this work was performed mainly by scholars or by census officials willing to do scholarly work on their own time; but modern census offices increasingly are undertaking such analysis as part of their regular work. Checks are made for internal consistency of the census, for consistency with previous censuses, and also with other statistics, including estimates, that are entirely independent of the census. Both underenumeration and overenumeration of an age group can be determined by comparing the census results with the comparable age cohort for the previous census, adjusted for deaths and migration [seeCohort analysis]. Inaccuracies in age reporting that result from the preference of respondents for certain ages can be identified by internal analysis of the data. Sometimes the accuracy of census information for individuals is tested by comparison with information given for these same individuals in administrative records. Sample surveys may be taken to check on completeness of coverage and accuracy of census returns.

These evaluations aid in increasing the accuracy of future censuses, but they also provide users of the statistics with information about the reliability of the data. Although there has been some hesitation about revealing errors in the census, there is a growing recognition that full and frank disclosure leads not only to improvement in future censuses but also to increased public confidence.

Conrad Taeuber

[See alsoFertility; Government statistics; Mortality; Population; Vital statistics.]


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An official count of the population of a particular area, such as a district, state, or nation.

The U.S. Constitution requires that a census of the entire population, citizens and noncitizens alike, be made every ten years (Article I, Section 2, Clause 3). The fourteenth amendment to the Constitution directs that the census will be used to determine the number of members of the U.S. House of Representatives from each state. The census is conducted by the U.S. census bureau, an agency established in 1899 within the U.S. commerce department. The data gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau are used by the states to draw boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts, and by local governments to establish districts for other representative bodies such as county legislatures, city councils, and boards of supervisors.

Census data are also used to allocate federal and state funding and services. By the mid-1990s, more than $50 billion in federal aid for education, housing, and health programs to states and cities was distributed annually based on census numbers. In addition, census information is used in academic research and is sought by product manufacturers and marketers who want to know the demographics of potential consumers.

The first U.S. census took place in 1790 when some six hundred u.s. marshals went door-to-door counting approximately 3.9 million people. The 1790 census consisted of fewer than ten questions, which for each household included the name of the head of the family, the number of free white males over and under 16 years of age, the number of free white females, the number of all other free persons, and the number of slaves.

The 1890 census counted 63 million U.S. citizens and reflected a dramatic increase in immigration, urbanization, and industrialization. That census showed that for the first time fewer than half of all U.S. workers were employed on farms. The 1890 census included questions regarding military service during the Civil War, number of years in the United States, naturalization status, reading and writing ability, and mental and physical disabilities.

By 1980, the Census Bureau conceded that the decennial censuses were undercounting portions of the population, usually low-income and minority groups in the inner cities. In follow-up surveys after the 1980 census the bureau determined that it had missed some 3.2 million persons, or 1.4 percent of the population. For example, a 1986 post-census survey of East Los Angeles estimated that the 1980 census missed about ten percent of the Latino community, seven percent of the Asian community, and nine percent of the black community. Census officials determined that overall, nearly six percent of the black and Hispanic populations were uncounted

and less than one percent of the white population.

By May 1987, the Census Bureau had determined that the 1990 census could be adjusted for undercounting by using a technique called a post-enumeration survey (PES). The PES would allow the census to be checked for accuracy by sending census takers back to a given number of households that would be representative of the entire U.S. population and comparing the information gathered with the initial head count. If discrepancies arose, the bureau could make corrections and project them to neighborhoods with similar demographic characteristics.

But in October 1987, officials from the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, decided against making any statistical adjustment to the 1990 census. As a result, in 1988, New York, Los Angeles, and several other cities, as well as a number of states and organizations, brought suit in federal district court. They claimed that the secretary's decision not to adjust the 1990 census violated their right to equal protection under the fifth amendment to the Constitution and asked the court to enjoin the census. They also argued that the Commerce Department's actions were politically motivated by a Republican administration that realized that the undercounted population is historically Democratic. The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, contending that the secretary's decision was not subject to judicial review. In City of New York v. United States Department of Commerce, 713 F. Supp. 48 (E.D.N.Y. 1989), the district court denied the motion to dismiss, holding that the plaintiffs had standing (the legal right) to challenge the census on constitutional grounds and that the court could review the secretary's decision.

Following the district court's decision the parties entered into a stipulation in July 1989 by which plaintiffs would withdraw their motion to enjoin the census and the Commerce Department would reconsider its 1987 decision not to adjust the 1990 census. The agreement required the Commerce Department to conduct a PES of not fewer than 150,000 households as part of the 1990 census in order to produce corrected counts usable for congressional and legislative reapportionment and redistricting. The agreement also required the department to develop guidelines under which the secretary would assess any proposed adjustment. In March 1990 the Commerce Department issued final guidelines. The plaintiffs challenged them in court on the grounds that they were impermissibly vague and were biased against any adjustment to the 1990 census. In City of New York, 739 F. Supp. 761 (E.D.N.Y. 1990), the district court held that the guidelines satisfied the defendants' obligations under the 1989 stipulation. The Census Bureau then began the 1990 census.

The 1990 census employed more than 425,000 workers who gathered information on an estimated 250 million people in 106 million households. For the first time, the Census Bureau combined technology with traditional door knocking, using coast-to-coast computerized maps of all 7.5 million census tracts in the United States. The bureau predicted that these maps would reduce the number of errors caused by census workers' reliance on outdated state and local maps. The census cost some $2.6 billion—65 percent more than the 1980 census—making it the most expensive count ever conducted.

In March 1990, the bureau mailed or hand delivered more than 106 million questionnaires, one to every household in the United States. Most households received a short form consisting of 14 questions covering personal characteristics and housing. One in six U.S. households received a long form with 45 additional questions on topics such as utilities, tax, mortgage, and rent payments; place of birth; ethnic origin; and work habits. From March to June 1990 census workers continued the data collection. The bureau set aside March 20, 1990, as "homeless night." On that night, census takers, many hired from among the homeless population or those who worked with them, visited shelters and low-cost motels from 6:00 p.m. to midnight; counted homeless people on the streets from 2:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m.; and from 4:00 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. stood outside abandoned buildings, counting those who emerged.

The homeless count caused a great deal of controversy. The 1990 census reported 228,600 homeless persons in the United States, compared with earlier estimates of 500,000 to 3 million. Advocates for homeless persons argued that the Census Bureau had surveyed only a third of the country's cities and counties and had visited only a limited number of locations. The bureau acknowledged that its workers had avoided actually going into hideaways such as abandoned buildings and dumpsters because of safety concerns and admitted that many winter shelters had closed by the time the census was taken in late March. The bureau maintained that its homeless survey was not intended to produce a definitive count of the homeless population.

In October 1990, the Census Bureau issued estimated U.S. population figures of approximately 254 million, based on a tracking of birth, death, and immigration records. In December, the bureau released a final U.S. population tally of some 249 million, based on the actual mailed census questionnaires and house-to-house interviews. The discrepancy between the two sets of numbers indicated that the 1990 census missed some five million U.S. residents.

By December 31, 1990, the bureau reported to the president population figures for each state as well as the number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives that each state would receive. Between January and March 1991, states with early deadlines for redrawing legislative districts received totals of all persons of voting age, broken down by race. By April 1, 1991, most other states received the voting age and race data. Between April 1991 and 1993, the Census Bureau released statistics compiled from the long forms, including information on income, marital status, disabilities, types of housing, and education.

In April 1991, the bureau announced the results of its PES. Estimates drawn from the PES revealed that the census had resulted in a national undercount of 2.1 percent, or approximately 5.3 million persons out of a total population of approximately 255 million, the largest undercounting in the history of the census. For example, in one south central Los Angeles neighborhood, officials determined that census takers had underreported the number of occupants in 38 percent of 5,800 households. As expected, the undercount was greater for members of racial and ethnic minorities. Hispanics were undercounted by 5.2 percent, Native Americans by 5.0 percent, African Americans by 4.8 percent, and Asian Pacific Islanders by 3.1 percent. The PES-calculated undercount for non-African Americans was 1.7 percent and for non-Hispanic whites, 1.2 percent. Among major cities with high undercounts were Los Angeles (5.1 percent), Houston (5 percent), Washington, D.C. (5 percent), Dallas (4.8 percent), Miami (4.6 percent), Detroit (3.5 percent), and New York (3 percent).

Among the reasons given for the low counts were that certain segments of the population did not believe the Census Bureau's promise that information is confidential and will not be shared with other government agencies such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the local housing authority, or the police; did not have addresses and thus were missed because the 1990 census was conducted primarily by mail; lived in urban high-crime areas where census takers were afraid to go door-to-door; were illegal immigrants; feared the government in general; or lacked proficiency in English.

According to the bureau, if the adjusted count were adopted, Arizona and California would each gain a seat in the House of Representatives and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania would each lose one seat. These discrepancies led state officials to renew their plea for an adjustment of the census using the PES.

In July 1991, Secretary of Commerce Robert A. Mosbacher announced his decision not to adjust the 1990 census to account for the estimated five million people undercounted by the census. Mosbacher said that although he was troubled by the undercount of minorities, his decision supported the integrity of the census and that the resulting disadvantage to minorities should not be remedied in the official census. He also expressed concern that adjustment might not improve distribution of representatives among the states and that uncertainty as to the methods of adjustment and assumptions behind them might cause even more dispute about the accuracy of the census.

The plaintiffs in Wisconsin v. City of New York 517 U.S. 1, 116 S. Ct. 1091, 134 L. Ed. 2d 167 (1996), attacked the secretary's decision, contending that it was tainted by partisan political influence and violated the Constitution, the administrative procedure act of 1946, and the 1989 stipulation agreed to by both parties in the case. After a 13-day bench (non-jury) trial, the district court concluded that it could not overturn the secretary's decision (City of New York, 822 F. Supp. 906 [E.D.N.Y. 1993]). On appeal, the court of appeals concluded that, given the admittedly greater accuracy of the adjusted count, the secretary's decision was not entitled to be upheld without a showing by the secretary that the refusal to adjust the census was essential to the achievement of a legitimate government objective (City of New York, 34 F.3d 1114 [2d Cir. 1994]). On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Second Circuit,

holding that the secretary's decision not to adjust the census was within the government's discretion (___ U.S. ___, 134 L. Ed. 2d 167, 116 S. Ct. 1091 [1996]).

By October 1991, at least five state legislatures had filed requests under the freedom of information act (FOIA) (5 U.S.C.A. § 552 et seq.) to see the adjusted census figures in order to decide which set of numbers should be used to redraw state political boundaries. Secretary Mosbacher refused to make the adjusted numbers public, claiming they were flawed and their release could disrupt the redistricting process. In Assembly of California v. United States Department of Commerce, 797 F. Supp. 1554 (E.D. Cal. 1992), California state officials brought an action under the FOIA to enjoin the Commerce Department from withholding computer tapes containing statistically adjusted census data for California. The department claimed that the information was protected from disclosure under an exemption to the FOIA. But the district court said the exemption did not apply to the census data and ordered the Commerce Department to release the tapes. The court of appeals affirmed the district court's order to release the tapes (Assembly of California, 968 F. 2d 916 [9th Cir. 1992]).

In a similar case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reached the opposite result. In Florida House of Representatives v. United States Department of Commerce, 961 F. 2d 941 (11th Cir. 1992), the Florida House of Representatives brought a FOIA action to compel the Commerce Department to release all the adjusted census data for Florida. The district court granted summary judgment for Florida and the Commerce Department appealed (Florida House of Representatives, No. TCA 91-40387-WS [N.D. Fla. 1992]). The Eleventh Circuit reversed, finding that the census data were exempted from disclosure under the FOIA. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case (Florida House of Representatives, 506 U.S. 969, 113 S. Ct. 446, 121 L. Ed. 2d 363 [1992]).

In light of the controversy over the 1990 census, government officials and demographers debated how best to conduct the census in 2000 and later. Many demographers argued that the U.S. population had become too mobile and too uncooperative to allow reliance on mail-in-surveys and door-to-door interviews. An increase in the number of non-English speakers, undocumented immigrants, and homeless persons makes census taking more difficult and residents will become more diverse and less tolerant of government intrusion in the future. The American Statistical Association urged the government to use scientific sampling surveys to estimate the population that has been the most difficult to count.

In preparation for the 2000 census the bureau conducted a test census in the spring of 1995 at three sites—Paterson, New Jersey; Oakland, California; and six parishes in northwestern Louisiana. The sites were selected because of their ethnic diversity and their large number of multidwelling housing units. In Paterson the bureau experimented with a multimedia kiosk, which allowed residents to answer census questions by touching a screen. In Oakland all identified households were sent a census form and blank forms were also made available at libraries, post offices, and the state department of motor vehicles. The bureau also experimented with using statistical samples from random surveys to estimate total population.

From these test projects the Census Bureau announced that it would use statistical sampling to take into account historically undercounted populations. These populations included minorities, renters, children, poor persons, and illegal aliens. Although the American Statistical Association supported this approach as a valid methodology, the announcement set off a political firestorm. Congressional Republicans, worried that sampling would lead to congressional apportionment that favored the democratic party, filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the proposed practice.

The Supreme Court, in Commerce Dept. v. U.S. House of Representatives, 525 U.S. 316, 119 S. Ct. 765, 142 L. Ed. 2d 797 (1999), ruled, in a 5–4 decision, against the use of statistical sampling, holding that the 1976 amendments to the Census Act (1954) prohibit the use of statistical sampling for purposes of population head counts. Justice sandra day o'connor, writing for the majority, stated that there had been over two hundred years of history "during which federal census statutes have uniformly prohibited using statistical sampling for congressional apportionment."

The 2000 census revealed that the U.S. population had grown to approximately 281 million. There was little public controversy over the results, a sharp contrast to the 1990 census. However, one state did file suit in an attempt to throw out census figures derived from a method the state considered impermissible sampling. Utah, noting that its population grew by 30 percent in ten years, was disappointed it did not gain another seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In reviewing the census data it noted that the Census Bureau had relied on a statistical method called imputation to estimate the number of members of a household that census takers could not contact after repeated efforts. Utah discovered that if it could have these imputed numbers removed from the population count it would gain a House seat that had been awarded to North Carolina.

A three-judge panel heard Utah's lawsuit but dismissed it at the urging of the Commerce Department. The panel ruled that the imputation method was not impermissible under the 1999 Supreme Court decision and that it did not violate the Constitution's Census Clause. The Supreme Court, in Utah v. Evans, 536 U.S. 452, 122 S. Ct. 2191, 153 L. Ed. 2d 453 (2002), upheld the lower court ruling. The Court, in a 5–4 decision, dismissed Utah's contention that actual enumeration under the Census Clause was intended as a description of the only methodology for counting U.S. citizens. As for the imputation method, the Court saw it as different from sampling: "sampling seeks to extrapolate the features of a large population from a small one, but the Bureau's imputation process sought simply to fill in missing data as part of an effort to count individuals one by one."

The Census Bureau has established at its website (<>) a portal for accessing all 2000 census data. The site provides researchers with tables of data while also providing the public with breakdowns of data in easily searchable formats.

further readings

Anderson, Margo J. 1990. The American Census: A Social History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press.

Katz, Bruce, Robert Lang, and Franklin Raines. 2003. Redefining Urban and Suburban America: Evidence from Census 2000. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.

U.S. Census Bureau. Available online at <> (accessed May 28, 2003).



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CENSUS. The word census is a Latin term, and efforts during the early modern period to conduct population surveys were historically descended from the Roman census process, which was based on sworn declarations of the age, number of family members, and property of individual households. Early modern political writers were impressed by the Roman state's ability to enumerate and assess its subject population. Because the equation of a commonwealth's population with its strength had by the later sixteenth century become a commonplace, enthusiastic recommendations of the census were made by a host of thinkers, including Jean Bodin (1576), Giovanni Botero (1588), Justus Lipsius (1589), and other political thinkers. Yet, if the historical memory of the Roman census had survived the collapse of the Roman Empire, the administrative ability to actually conduct one did not. As a result, full territorial enumerations were only sporadically carried out in most of Europe until the end of the eighteenth century.

The most significant exception to this generalization was Italy itself, where true censuses (as opposed to household listings and tax surveys) were already being carried out by the end of the Middle Ages. The Italian city-states were especially (and unsurprisingly) advanced in this regard, and censuses had already been carried out in Florence (1380), Treviso (1384), Padua (1411), Verona (1473), Reggio (1473), Palermo (1479), Brescia (1493), Parma (1508), Venice (1509), and Rome (1526). Enumerations were also conducted in Italian territorial principalities, including the duchies of Ferrara (1431) and Mantua (1451), and in Sicily (1501). The mature administration of these censuses reflects the much greater sophistication of public administration in Italy than elsewhere in Europe, and early modern Italian censuses were much more than simple head counts. The Sicilian censuses, of which there were fourteen between 1501 and 1747, listed every individual by name and relationship to the head of the household, and separated out those males of arms-bearing age. By the sixteenth century, Italian censuses often recorded detailed information on the age structure of the population, and the exact age of every inhabitant was recorded at Pozzuoli (1489), Sorrento (1561), and Carpi (1591). By comparison, the English and American censuses did not list every individual by name until 1841 and 1850, respectively. It is also worth noting that the registration of births began in Siena in 1381, in Florence in 1450, and in Bologna in 1459, whereas parish registers do not survive before the mid- to late-sixteenth century in Protestant Europe, and before the seventeenth century in most of Catholic northern Europe.

Italian precocity did not mean, however, that the rest of Europe had ceased to carry out population surveys altogether, and the early modern period generated a mass of such material. Thus, population surveys begin to appear on monastic estates in France and Germany as early as the ninth century, and by the later Middle Ages full population counts were taken in several German cities, for example in Nuremberg (1449), Nördlingen (1459), and Strasbourg (1473), although these were not followed up on a regular basis.

Especially at the level of the local territory or community, a huge variety of other surveys were conducted with ever greater frequency during the early modern period. Muster rolls listing all men eligible for military service were drawn up on an irregular basis in various European communities. There was also a variety of specialized censuses, such as the Norwich Census of the Poor (1570) and the Castilian educational census of 1764, which was designed to determine the number of students who were attending various education institutions. In the Holy Roman Empire a number of territorial authorities (for example, the Bishop of Speyer in 1530, and the monastery of Ottobeuren in 1548, 1556, 1564, and 1586) compiled Leibeigenbücher, 'serf registers', which recorded the free (or servile) status of every man, woman, and child in the territory. During the sixteenth century both Catholic and Protestant episcopal authorities began conducting parish-by-parish counts of the number of communicants (all persons over twelve to fourteen years of age), and these surveys became ever more detailed and systematic during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Still more detailed was the liber status animarum, or listing of each parish resident, which the papacy, in 1614, ordered every parish priest to maintain. These listings were less commonly compiled than the more familiar baptismal, marriage, and burial registers, but many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century parish listings have survived from Catholic Europe, and in a few areas (Malta after 1687, for example) complete listings have survived for every single parish. Similar records were maintained in many Protestant areas. In England, listings have survived from scattered locations from the later sixteenth century, although it is a rare parish where more than one such survey has survived. More systematic efforts were undertaken on the Continent, especially in Sweden, where parish registration had begun in 1686. In 1749, the Lutheran parish clergy in Sweden and Finland (then a Swedish possession) were further required to maintain a continuously updated list of parish residents and submit quinquennial tabulations to the Tabellverket (Tabulation Office) of population numbers broken down by sex, age, marital status, occupation, and social status, in addition to annual statistics of births, marriages, deaths, and (in the nineteenth century) migration.

By far the most common type of early modern enumeration, however, was a survey of hearths or heads of households, made almost always for fiscal reasons. As with the census itself, the earliest such territorial hearth tax surveys were carried out in Italy, as at Pavia (1250), Pistoia (1255), Perugia (1278), Padua (c. 1281), Reggio Emilia (1315), Florence (1351), Sicily (1374), and Venice (1379). The Florentine catasto (tax survey) of 1427 went so far as to record not only the name, age, marital status, and profession of the household head, but also the number of other individuals in the family, the type of residence (owned or rented), the number and value of livestock, the value of private and public investments, and the capitalized value of real property.

Beyond Italy, England stands out as a kingdom of very early tax surveys. Because of its unusually centralized monarchy, national tax surveys began in England as early as 1086 (William I's famous Domesday Book), and were repeated with varying degrees of completeness in 12791280 (the Hundred Rolls), 1377 (Edward III's Poll Tax), 15241525 (Henry VIII's Lay Subsidy), and 16621674 (Charles II's Hearth Taxes). Elsewhere in Europe full territorial tax surveys were conducted in France (1328), the German lands of the Holy Roman Empire (1495), Portugal (1527), Bohemia (16531655), Moravia (16551657), Ireland (1659), and Austria (17491750). Before the eighteenth century these large-scale surveys were only infrequently attempted; thus in Portugal there was only a single national survey between 1527 and 1736, and this one (in 1636) was seriously inaccurate. Outside of Italy, perhaps the most regular set of national household surveys were conducted in Castile between 1528 and 1536, 1541, 1552, 1561, 1571, 1587, 1591, and 1596, and were supplemented by the so-called relaciones topográficas of 15751578, a set of questions about local customs, economic conditions, and institutional characteristics administered in each locality in the kingdom. Even then, the frequency of survey fell off in the following century.

Local hearth and household tax surveys were much more common than their national counterparts and grew in frequency over the course of the early modern period. Nevertheless, there were significant regional differences in detail. Thus, in northern France, local taille (direct property tax) rolls recorded little more than the payment made by each household (and even they are rare before 1650). By contrast, German tax surveys often itemized and valuated each item of a household's property, and the level of its debts, as early as the beginning of the seventeenth century.

The close connection between census taking and taxation was, of course, recognized both by administrators and those they surveyed, and fears of excessive taxation would move the British Parliament to reject a census bill as late as 1753. Nevertheless, by the end of the eighteenth century the census was recognized as an essential tool of government, and regular population surveys were initiated (or at least attempted) in Norway (1769), France (1774, 1790), Denmark (1787), Belgium (1797), England (1801), Bavaria (1818), Saxony (1834), and Austria (1850).

See also Property ; State and Bureaucracy ; Taxation .


Beloch, Julius. Bevölkerungsgeschichte Italiens. 3 vols. Berlin, 19371961.

Blaschke, Karlheinz. Bevölkerungsgeschichte von Sachsen bis zur industriellen Revolution. Weimar, 1967.

Herlihy, David, and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber. Tuscans and Their Families: A Study of the Florentine Catasto of 1427. New Haven, 1985.

Hollingsworth, Thomas Henry. Historical Demography. Ithaca, N.Y., 1969.

Mols, Roger. Introduction à la démographie historique des villes d'Europe du XIVe au XVIIIe siècle. 3 vols. Gembloux, 19541956.

Govind P. Sreenivasan

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A census is a periodic, systematic enumeration of a population. Census-taking activities that counted at least certain segments of the population, such as those expected to be available for military service or to pay taxes, have been documented from ancient times. Modern censuses, broader in scope and content, are taken in many countries and gather statistical data that are used for myriad purposes.

Population counts were made in ancient Babylonia, Egypt, China, and India, some before 2000 or even 3000 BCE. Enumerations occurred in ancient Greece, and a comprehensive census was taken by the ancient Romans. Accounts of enumeration activities, largely to determine numbers of men available for military purposes, are included in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the Roman census is central to the nativity story; it is said to be occurring at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ, necessitating that people travel to be properly counted and taxed.

During the Middle Ages, censuses occurred periodically, including those in Japan, France, and Italy. The Domesday Book, compiled during the eleventh century for economic purposes under King William I (c. 10281087), provided a detailed description of England. Later enumerations occurred after the plague swept through the population. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, census efforts were undertaken in various countries around the globe. The first census in North America was conducted in 1666 in New France (Canada). Censuses were taken in Virginia and in most of the British territories before the Revolutionary War (17751783). Censuses are now routine in nations worldwide.

The U.S. decennial census, first taken in 1790, is the longest-running periodic census. It is required by Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution for the primary purpose of reapportionment of the U.S. House of Representatives (i.e., determining the number of seats to which each state is entitled). Census data are also used in redistricting, the redrawing of political districts after reapportionment. More than five hundred other uses of census data have been mandated by federal laws.

Modern census data have numerous government, demographic, social, and economic uses. These uses include marketing research, strategic and capital planning, community advocacy, funding and resource allocation, and disaster relief. Census data are also widely used in academic, government, and genealogical research. Australian census data were even used to connect cases of maternal rubella (German measles) during pregnancy with deafness in children.

Census use, language, and content, however, have controversial implications. Censuses routinely track and quantify diversity by examining social demographics such as race and ethnicity, age, sex, class, disabilities, living arrangements, and family composition. Census head of household designations have been challenged as reflecting and perpetuating patriarchal patterns of power and authority implied in such terminology. Racial and ethnicity categorizations have proven contentious and continue to evolve, as do social constructions of those concepts. The analysis of same-sex couples has received increasing attention as well. When the 2001 census in England and Wales added a question on religion, 390,000 respondents recorded Jedi (the belief system featured in the popular Star Wars science fiction movies) as their religious preference, having been urged to do so by an Internet campaign. The campaign apparently had the unintended positive effect of encouraging people in their late teens and early twenties to complete their census forms. No census manages to count every member of the population. Certain categories of people, such as immigrants and the homeless, are the most likely to be missed and, therefore, under-counted and potentially underserved.

Some censuses, such as colonial censuses in Africa, have also raised concerns regarding motive, and some censuses have even involved human rights abuses of vulnerable subpopulations, such as the forced migrations of Native Americans in the nineteenth century. These abuses have been particularly evident during times of war. After the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. census data was used by the War Department (now the Department of Defense) in the identification and relocation of Japanese Americans to detention camps. Census data from Germany and occupied regions was central to furthering Nazi interests before and during World War II (19391945). It was used in propaganda, in the identification of Aryans and non-Aryans, in the extermination of Jews and others, and in advancing the regimes military goals.

The United Nations Statistics Division, through the World Population and Housing Census Program, has been active in supporting national census-taking worldwide, including the development of census methodology, the provision of technical assistance in conducting censuses, and the dissemination of census data. As census technology, techniques, procedures, research, and guidance become increasingly refined, awareness of various issues is heightened and they can be better addressed.

SEE ALSO Aryans; Data; Data, Pseudopanel; Demography; Ethnicity; Human Rights; Measurement; Native Americans; Nazism; Population Growth; Population Studies; Public Health; Racial Classification; Religion; Survey


Alterman, Hyman. 1969. Counting People: The Census in History. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Aly, Götz, and Karl Heinz Roth. 2004. The Nazi Census: Identification and Control in the Third Reich. Trans. Edwin Black and Assenka Oksiloff. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

FPS Economy: Directorate-General, Statistics and Economic Information. 2007. Census in the World.

Lancaster, Henry O. 1951. Deafness as an Epidemic Disease in Australia. British Medical Journal 2: 14291432.

Lavin, Michael R. 1996. Understanding the Census: A Guide for Marketers, Planners, Grant Writers, and Other Data Users. Kenmore, NY: Epoch.

National Statistics in the United Kingdom. 2003. 390,000 Jedis There Are: But Did Hoax Campaign Boost Response in Teens and 20s?

Rodriguez, Clara E. 2000. Changing Race: Latinos, the Census, and the History of Ethnicity in the United States. New York: New York University Press.

Seltzer, William. 2005. On the Use of Population Data Systems to Target Vulnerable Population Subgroups for Human Rights Abuses. Coyuntura Social 32: 3144.

Seltzer, William, and Margo Anderson. 2000. After Pearl Harbor: The Proper Use of Population Data in Time of War. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America, Los Angeles, March 2000.

United Nations Statistics Division.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1990. Federal Legislative Use of Decennial Census Data. 1990 Census Population and Housing Content Determination Report, CDR14. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. 2002. How the People Use the Census.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. 2007.

Kathy S. Stolley

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One of the oldest and most widespread use of counting and mathematics is the census.* The census is the official count of the people in a geographic area. The Constitution of the United States calls for a census to be taken every 10 years. Originally, the purpose of the census was to provide information for the periodical reapportionment of the House of Representatives. Today, census data is used for many reasons, including establishing where and how federal and state monies should be distributed.

*The census has its origins in the Roman Empire, but the modern system has its roots in seventeenth-century Sweden.

The U.S. Constitution requires its citizens to be "enumerated" or physically counted. But the precise meaning of the word "enumerate" has been debated in recent years. The beginning of the twenty-first century still sees census officials and researchers recommending different methods for estimating the number of people living in an area rather than counting. Debate continues around estimation methods because they can give different results than traditional counting methods.

Problems with Undercounting

Under the original Constitution, Native Americans were not counted in a census. African Americans were counted, with 92 percent listed as slaves, and each slave counting as three-fifths of a man. Other groups, such as Asians, were not included at all at this point. Over the years, different groups gained recognition and were included in the census. But even in the twentieth century, some groups continued to be undercounted, such as those living in dense urban areas. With multiple family units often living at one address, the chance of finding an address for all individual families is less than for single-family residences.

Although counting methods today recognize all ethnicities and socioeconomic classes, concerns about undercounting are still an issue. After the 1990 census, at least three cases went before the United States Supreme Court regarding problems or disagreements with either the manner in which the census was completed or its results. In Wisconsin v. City of New York (1996), the charge was that the census had undercounted a population of New York by not including some members of certain minority groups. This alleged undercount benefited the State of Wisconsin by increasing the number of representatives from Wisconsin. The U.S. Secretary of Commerce

refused to make any statistical change to the data: this decision was upheld by the Supreme Court.

In two other cases brought to court in 1996, states were required to reapportion the congressional districts in their state. In doing so, districts highly irregular in shape were created in order to given voting strength to a minority group. The Supreme Court ruled these redistricting plans violated the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution.

The Debate over Estimation

Around 1770, a science known as statistics was defined. Statistics is a branch of mathematics dealing with the collection, analysis, interpretation and presentation of masses of numerical data. Statistics were so new in the late 1700s that the authors of the United States Constitution did not have any confidence in this "new" science, and did not use it for census purposes. By the end of the 1800s, however, statistical methods and knowledge increased, and the concept of estimating a population by sampling a small part of it was no longer a strange thought.

Today, mathematicians believe that using sampling and estimation methods will reduce undercounts. Some ideas presented at a 1999 conference included basing estimates on water demand, birth records, death records, IRS tax returns, master address files, and census blocks, all of which have been utilized with varying degrees of success. The National Academy of Sciences recommended using an estimation method combined with traditional enumeration to fulfill federal law requirements and increase the accuracy of the census.

But a political debate centers on how the census count will affect the congressional districts. By using traditional enumeration methods, the like-lihood of minorities being undercounted is greater. Therefore, individuals who were elected by majority constituents desire the census to remain the same. In contrast, individuals who would benefit from a larger participation of minorities in elections prefer the census to be conducted statistically which would therefore increase estimates of minorities.

The Next Census

The 2000 census, with all of its faults, was the most detailed in U.S. history. It included race self-identification questions as well as ethnicity identification. Although this is more information than ever requested before, some minority groups allege that the census remains incomplete. Some of the problems encountered with the 2000 census included non-English-speaking citizens who could not read the form, the inability to include more than one race for couples who are biracial, and the lack of a permanent address at which to be contacted. Additionally, some believe the Census Bureau does not have the right to ask detailed personal questions, such as income or race.

Every tenth year during census time, many of these same questions resurface. Why does the Census Bureau need to know such information? Why does the U.S. Code not allow mathematicians to take advantage of statistics to simplify and make the count more accurate? These questions will surely be addressed again before the 2010 census occurs.

see also Babbage, Charles; Data Collection and Interpretation; Statistical Analysis.

Susan Strain Mockert


Anderson, Margo J. and Stephen E. Fienberg. Who Counts? The Politics of Census-Taking in Contemporary America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999.

Cohen, Michael L., Andrew A. White, Keith F. Rust. Measuring a Changing Nation: Modern Methods for the 2000 Census. Panel on Alternative Census Methodologies, National Research Council. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999.

Keever, Beverly Ann Deepe, Carolyn Martindale, Mary Ann Weston. U.S. Coverage of Racial Minorities: A Sourcebook, 19341996. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.

National Academy of Sciences. Modernizing the U.S. Census. Commission of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1994.

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A census is an enumeration of all the people of a nation or a registration region, a systematic and complete count of all who are living in specified places, usually on a specific date. The practice of conducting a periodic census began in Egypt in the second millennium before the common era, where it was used for tax gathering and to determine fitness for military services. The Romans adopted the practice in the first century b.c.e. Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem because Mary and Joseph had gone there to be enumerated in a Roman census. The Domesday Book was a census of English landowners and their resources soon after the Norman conquest. Many European nations held censuses of varying quality and completeness from time to time until the modern era, when the practice became a formal part of the business of a modern state. The first modern census in England was in 1801, and has been repeated at ten-year intervals ever since, except when interrupted by the Second World War.

In democratic societies, one important purpose of the census is to obtain a precise count of the people in each electoral district who are eligible to vote. For this reason even the politicians who oppose government "interference" in people's lives usually support the census. However, many people in nations with a past history of totalitarianism resist attempts to gather detailed personal information that is routinely gathered elsewhere.

Like most modern democracies, the United States conducts a complete enumeration every ten years, under the auspices of the Bureau of the Census, which publishes detailed reports. Some nations, such as Canada, hold an interim census at the five-year interval between the decennial census, often on a random sample basis. The rationale for this is that the composition and locations of the population is changing so rapidly that accurate current information is required to maintain essential services.

Information for the census is gathered in most countries by enumerators who visit every dwelling, systematically recording the name, sex, and age of everyone living there. Much other information is often collected at the same time and put to various uses. This may include other details about individuals and families, including ethnic origins, language, occupation, and marital status. Occasionally the census includes questions on health conditions, particularly chronic conditions and permanent disabilities such as blindness. Other useful facts include details about dwellings. This may include the number of bedrooms (a measure of crowding when related to the number of occupants); facilities for cooking and safe storage of food; sanitation and access to hot water; number of cars owned or used; number of telephones; and ownership of appliances such as television sets and computers. Some of this information has public health significance, and some is in the category of socially useful data. Some people regard questions with this level as unduly intrusive, but most willingly cooperate when reassured that the information will be used only to compile statistics. In the United States, census enumerators have all taken an oath of secrecy, and they can be punished with fines or even imprisonment if they disclose the facts they gather to any unauthorized person.

In certain countries, illegal immigrants or others living outside of conventional society avoid enumeration by various means, causing census to underrepresent the population. In parts of the United States with appreciable numbers of illegal immigrants, the proportion missed in the census may reach 10 percent. Estimates of actual numbers can be based on unobtrusive measures and indirectly obtained information such as school attendance and hospital room recordings.

John M. Last

(see also: Bureau of the Census; Demography; Vital Statistics )

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census, periodic official count of the number of persons and their condition and of the resources of a country. In ancient times, among the Jews and Romans, such enumeration was mainly for taxation and conscription purposes. The introduction of the modern census—a periodic and thorough statistical review—began in the 17th cent. The first efforts to count people in areas larger than cities at regular periods were in French Canada (1665), Sweden (1749), the Italian states (1770), and the United States (1790). The first British census was taken in 1801. The Belgian census of 1846, directed by Adolphe Quetelet, was the most influential in its time because it introduced a careful analysis and critical evaluation of the data compiled. Most industrialized countries now take a census every 5 to 10 years.

Scientific census-taking in the United States began with the decennial census of 1850, when the scope and methods were greatly improved by making the individual the unit of study. In 1902 the Bureau of the Census was established in the Dept. of the Interior; the following year it was transferred to the Dept. of Commerce and Labor and remained in the Dept. of Commerce when the Dept. of Labor was separated (1913). In addition to being a vital source of statistical data about the nation, information from the U.S. census is also used to allocate federal resources.

The government was criticized and also sued for undercounting the homeless and minorities in the 1990 census. In 1996 the Supreme Court ruled that the decision to adjust the count is left to the discretion of the secretary of commerce. The government proposed remedying the problem of undercounting through the use of statistical adjustments to the 2000 census, but the Supreme Court ruled (1998) against the plan, and the traditional head-count method prevailed. In 2001 the government again decided to use unadjusted census figures. About 3.3 million people, largely minorities, were estimated to have been missed by the 2000 census; a smaller number were thought to have been counted twice. Unadjusted census figures are generally believed to favor Republicans in the drawing of districts for the House of Representatives.

See W. S. Holt, The Bureau of the Census (1929, repr. 1974); F. Yates, Sampling Methods for Censuses and Surveys (4th ed. 1980); M. J. Anderson, The American Census (1990); S. Roberts, Who We Are: A Portrait of America Based on the 1990 Census (1994).

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census A complete and individual enumeration of all cases of the type specified within defined boundaries at a single point in time; a 100 per cent count of some social entity or type of event. In contrast to a survey, in which only part of a population is included, a census yields cross-sectional data, ranging from a simple head-count to more sophisticated information, on every member (in theory at least) of a population.

In order to achieve such complete coverage, national censuses usually require compulsion, an obligation to participate and co-operate in providing the information required, and are therefore the preserve of national governments. National censuses have been undertaken only relatively recently (the first British Census took place in 1801).

Most countries carry out a population and housing census every ten years with compulsory participation to ensure total coverage and a complete head-count. Population data in inter-censal years must then be inferred from inter-censal projections or from sample surveys. Some countries also have other national censuses, for example of employment or business activities, or industrial output. Censuses may be carried out annually, or at periodic intervals, instead of every ten years—although there are obvious constraints of logistics and finance. In recent years, therefore, there have been experiments in applying sampling techniques to national censuses. What this usually means is that the 100 per cent count is limited to identifying all relevant cases, combined with a questionnaire survey of a specified proportion of all cases, ranging from 10 per cent to 50 per cent—in effect a census followed immediately by a sample survey. Other bodies that attempt censuses—for example of all members of an association—may achieve high levels of co-operation, but are unlikely to achieve complete coverage due to the absence of any compulsion to participate, resulting in some degree of non-response.

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cen·sus / ˈsensəs/ • n. (pl. -sus·es ) an official count or survey of a population, typically recording various details of individuals: population estimates extrapolated from the 1981 census | [as adj.] census data. ORIGIN: early 17th cent. (denoting a poll tax): from Latin, applied to the registration of citizens and property in ancient Rome, usually for taxation, from censere ‘assess.’ The current sense dates from the mid 18th cent.

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"census." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 24 May. 2017 <>.

"census." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (May 24, 2017).

"census." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved May 24, 2017 from


census registration of citizens in ancient Rome XVII; enumeration of population XVIII. — L. cēnsus, rel. to prec.

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"census." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . 24 May. 2017 <>.

"census." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . (May 24, 2017).

"census." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved May 24, 2017 from


censusCrassus, Halicarnassus, Lassus •tarsus •nexus, plexus, Texas •Paracelsus •census, consensus •Croesus • narcissus • Ephesus •Dionysus • colossus • Pegasus •Caucasus • petasus •excursus, thyrsus, versus

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"census." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 24 May. 2017 <>.

"census." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . (May 24, 2017).

"census." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved May 24, 2017 from