Census, U.S. Bureau of the

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CENSUS, U.S. BUREAU OF THE. The U.S. Bureau of the Census, established in 1902, collects, compiles, and publishes demographic, social, and economic data for the U.S. government. These data affect business decisions and economic investments, political strategies and the allocation of political representation at the national, state and local levels, as well as the content of public policies and the annual distribution of more than $180 billion in federal spending. Unlike the information gathered and processed by corporations and other private sector organizations, the Census Bureau is commissioned to make its summary data publicly available and is legally required to ensure the confidentiality of the information provided by individuals and organizations for seventy-two years.

The Census Bureau employs approximately 6,000 full-time employees and hired 850,000 temporary employees to assist with the completion of the 2000 census. The president of the United States appoints the director

of the Census Bureau, a federal position that requires confirmation by the U.S. Senate. The bureau's headquarters are located in Suitland, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. The bureau's twelve permanent regional offices are located across the United States, and its processing and support facilities are in Jeffersonville, Indiana.

The Census Bureau has several data gathering responsibilities: the original constitutional purpose from which it draws its names is the completion of the decennial census. Article I of the Constitution requires Congress to enact "a Law" providing for the completion of an "actual Enumeration" of the population of the United States every "ten years." The 1787 Constitutional Convention adopted this provision to facilitate a proportional division of state representation in the House of Representatives. The basis and method for apportioning representation were unresolved problems that divided the states throughout the early national years. Numerous solutions were proposed and debated. At the First Continental Congress in 1774, Massachusetts delegate John Adams recommended that "a proportional scale" among the colonies "ought to be ascertained by authentic Evidence, from Records." Congress subsequently requested that colonial delegates provide accurate accounts "of the number of people of all ages and sexes, including slaves." The population information provided to Congress during the Revolutionary War was gathered and estimated by the states from available sources, including state censuses, tax lists, and militia rolls. Before the 1787 convention, Congress never used this information to apportion congressional representation, rather it served as the basis for apportioning monetary, military, and material requisitions among the states.

After ratification of the Constitution, Congress and President George Washington enacted federal legislation authorizing the first national census in 1790. Sixteen U.S. marshals and 650 assistants were assigned the temporary task of gathering personal and household information from the 3.9 million inhabitants counted in this Census. The secretary of state supervised the next four decennial censuses, and the Department of the Interior supervised it from 1850 through 1900. Beginning with the 1810 census, the information collected and published extended beyond population data to include tabular and graphic information on the manufacturing, mining, and agriculture sectors of the U.S. economy; on housing conditions, schools, and the achievement of students; and on water and rail transportation systems.

To expedite the collection and publication of the 1880 census, a special office was created in the Department of the Interior. With a number of endorsements, including ones from the American Economic Association and the American Statistical Association, Congress eventually enacted legislation in 1902 establishing the Census Office as a permanent executive agency. The legislation also expanded the mission of the new agency, authorizing an interdecennial census and surveys of manufacturers as well as annual compilations of vital statistics, and the collection and publication of data on poverty, crime, urban conditions, religious institutions, water transportation, and state and local public finance. In 1913 the Census Bureau was reassigned to and remains within the Department of Commerce.

With continued growth of the U.S. population and economy, the Census Bureau acquired new data collection and publication responsibilities in the twentieth century. In 1940, it initiated more detailed censuses of housing than previously available; in 1973, the Department of Housing and Urban Development contracted the bureau to complete the annual American Housing Survey. In 1941, the Bureau began collecting and tabulating official import, export, and shipping statistics; and since 1946 it has issued annual reports profiling the type, size, and payrolls of economic enterprises in every U.S. county. Among its other post–World War II statistical programs, the bureau has trained personnel and provided technical support for statistical organizations and censuses in other nations. Since 1957, the bureau also has completed censuses of state and local governments, a voluntary program of data sharing supplemented by annual surveys of public employee retirement programs and quarterly summaries of state and local government revenues. In 1963, the Census Bureau began a regular schedule of national transportation surveys. In 1969 and 1972 respectively, it started publishing regular reports on minority-owned and women-owned businesses, providing a statistical foundation for several federal affirmative action policies. Since the 1980s, it also provides quarterly and weekly surveys on the income and expenditures of American consumers for the Department of Labor.

Beyond the wealth of statistical information, the U.S. Census Bureau and its predecessors have additionally been supportive of several innovative and subsequently important technologies. A "tabulating machine" was employed in the 1880 census, completing calculations at twice the conventional speed. Herman Hollerith's electric punch card tabulating system, the computer's predecessor, replaced the tabulating machine in the 1890 census and ended the practice of hand tabulation of census returns. Subsequent censuses used improved versions of the punch card technology until the 1950 census, when the bureau received the first UNIVAC computer, the first commercially available computer, which completed tabulation at twice the speed of mechanical tabulation. Sub-sequent censuses have continued to employ the latest advances in computer technology, adopting optical sensing devices that read and transmit data from penciled dots on a mailed-in Census form and, in the 2000 Census, optical character recognition technology that reads an individual's hand-written responses.


Anderson, Margo J. The American Census: A Social History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.

Anderson, Margo, ed., Encyclopedia of the U.S. Census. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2000.

Eckler, A. Ross. The Bureau of the Census. New York: Praeger, 1972.

Factfinder for the Nation: History and Organization, U.S. Census Bureau, May 2000, accessed at: www.census.gov/prod/2000pubs/cff-4.pdf.

Robey, Bryant. "Two Hundred Years and Counting: 1990 Census," Population Bulletin 44, no. 1. Washington, D.C.: Population Reference Bureau, Inc., April 1989.

Charles A.Kromkowski

See alsoStatistics .

Census Bureau

views updated Jun 27 2018

Census Bureau

The U.S. Census Bureau has a long history in the United States of America. The Census Bureau collects data about the people and economy of the United States every ten years. The first census was taken in 1790 by U.S. marshals who were told to visit every dwelling place and count the individuals living there. Taking about a year to complete the count, census clerks determined the population to be 3.9 million inhabitants.

As the country grew, an increasing need developed for statistics to help the government understand the current situation and to make plans for the future. The content of the census changed accordingly. In 1810 the first inquiry about manufacturing was included; questions about fisheries were added in 1840. In 1850 the census included questions about crime, taxation, churches, and other social issues. In 1870 the Census Bureau used a wooden machine invented by Col. Charles W. Seaton to help keep the columns of figures aligned. By 1880, the census undertaking was so complex that it took almost eight years to tabulate.

American inventor Herman Hollerith (18601929) was employed by the U.S. Census Bureau to help tabulate the 1880 census. He left the Census Bureau for a succession of jobs and eventually he devised a punched card tabulating machine to track health statistics. After testing Hollerith's machine against two other inventions, the Census Bureau agreed to rent 56 Hollerith machines to speed up the tabulation of the 1890 census. Clerks used a hand punch to enter data into cards slightly larger than a dollar bill. The cards were then read and sorted by Hollerith's machine and summarized on numbered tabulating dials. The 1890 census took just two and a half years to complete and the Census Bureau saved more than $5 million.

Many researchers believe that the 1890 census was the first time that a large data collection and analysis problem was handled by machines. Because of the agency's need to process large amounts of data in a timely and cost-efficient fashion, the Census Bureau has been in the forefront of the data processing revolution.

The Census Bureau was instrumental in securing funding for John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, Jr., through the National Bureau of Standards, to develop a practical electronic digital computer. In 1951 the Census Bureau installed the Universal Automatic Computer (UNIVAC) I, which was developed by Mauchly and Eckert's company, Remington-Rand Corporation. It was the first commercially viable electronic digital computer.

Use of the UNIVAC I computer to tabulate the 1950 census did not yield great improvement over past tabulating methods, due to general inexperience with the computer and the awkwardness of this early computer technology. However, several surveys were tabulated using the UNIVAC I computer after the 1950 census. Improved performance on these surveys indicated to the bureau that increased use of electronic computing technology would continue to enhance survey productivity and expand the Census Bureau's ability to collect new types of data.

With the 1954 Economic Census, use of the electronic computer greatly reduced the bureau's reliance on the time-consuming and manually intensive punched card tabulating machines that had been in place since 1890. The new computer-based data processing system allowed the bureau to calculate sophisticated statistics that were previously impractical to use. The UNIVAC I computer also allowed the bureau to check for inconsistencies in the census data and correct them, thereby increasing accuracy. The electronic computer allowed longer records to be stored, sorted, and tabulated, which greatly increased the amount and types of data that could be analyzed. From this point, the Census Bureau focused much of its research and development efforts on auxiliary computer equipment to improve input and output operations and thus increase productivity.

The Census Bureau has developed a wide range of interactive tools to help people analyze and understand the statistics generated by the bureau. For example, the Data Extraction System (DES) is used to extract data from the current population survey and public use census data. DES is now available via the Internet, as are many other access and analysis tools. The TIGER system is another analysis and application tool; it integrates maps with information about highways, parks, railroads, streets, and population statistics. When a user enters a ZIP code, a map is displayed. The user can request various levels of detail, as desired. The CenStats system, also available to Internet users, makes a variety of applications available, including a street locator, business patterns for each county, surveys of manufacturers, international trade information, and more.

The U.S. Census Bureau is the only comprehensive, statistical source of social and economic data in the United States. The huge volume of data from the census is published and the statistics that are generated filter into almost every aspect of life in the United States. Population statistics are used to help determine each state's number of seats in the House of Representatives, funding for school districts, and money for road and bridge repairs. Census numbers are used by the federal government to allocate more than $100 billion each year for education programs, housing and community development, health-care services for the elderly, and other programs and services. Businesses use the statistics to decide where to locate factories, shopping malls, movie theaters, banks, and offices.

Some people are concerned that the individual answers they provide in a census can be seen by others. However, by law, confidentiality in census information is rigorously enforced. Individual answers cannot be shared with anyone, including other government agencies.

Since the first census in 1790, the U.S. Census Bureau has been a source of data about who we are, where we live, and what we need to do to grow and prosper as a country. The bureau has been instrumental in developing new ways to collect, analyze, and distribute this datafirst, through the use of mechanized tabulating machines, then through computer technology, and now through the Internet.

see also Early Computers; Eckert, J. Presper, Jr., and Mauchly, John W.; Hollerith, Herman; Tabulating Machines.

Terri L. Lenox


Shurkin, Joel. Engines of the Mind: The Evolution of the Computer from Mainframes to Microprocessors. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Internet Resources

The Census Bureau. <http://www.census.gov>

The 1997 Current Population Survey by the Census Bureau indicates that in 1997, some 37.4 million households (36.6 percent of the American population) owned a computer.

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