The U.S. Census: Introduction

Information about the U.S. Census and how it can be used in academic research.


In 2020, the United States conducted its decennial census. The U.S. Census is not only vital to our system of representative government, it is essential to our understanding of who we are as a country. This guide will explore both its history and myriad uses in public policy, research, education and more.

What is the U.S. Census?

The U.S. Census is a constitutionally-mandated count of persons dwelling in the United States The count includes citizens, non-citizen legal residents, non-citizen long-term visitors and undocumented immigrants. 

In addition to its primary purpose of reapportioning the House of Representatives, census data are used for a wide variety of applications, including:

  • Apportionment of federal funding in a large number of programs, estimated at somewhere between $675 billion and $1.5 trillion per year.
  • Infrastructure and transportation planning
  • Military and disaster response planning
  • Economic analysis
  • Commercial investment and marketing decisions
  • Computer programs that can disambiguate place names based on which has the highest population
  • General reference works

Source: U.S. Census

Privacy & Security


Worried about the security of your personal data? Here are just some of the ways the Census Bureau protects your information

  • Secure data collection - the Census always uses a secure internet connection to gather data.
  • Continuous monitoring - the Census Bureau actively monitors all its digital traffic and continuously inspects all IT systems.
  • Personal data privacy- the Census does not publish any data that could personally identify you, your household, or your business.

All these protocols and more are enforced by federal law.

Source: U.S. Census; image courtesy Pixabay

FAQs for Participants


Stick figure with confused look, arms raised.

Confused about what's involved in participating in the U.S. Census? Check the U.S. Census website for answers to your questions, including what to expect, how to verify or complete a Census survey, and how your personal information is secured and protected. 

Myths & Misinformation About the U.S. Census

There has been much misinformation on social media regarding the U.S. Census. Below are ten quick facts that should help alleviate any confusion.

  1. The Census does not and has never in its history included a question regarding a participant's citizenship status.
  2. The Census process does not begin on U.S. Census day -- it begins in January of the Census year, and is conducted through late summer.
  3. The Census does not count only U.S. Citizens; by law, the Census must count all persons residing within the United States.
  4. The Census maintains the privacy of your personal data for 72 years, after which it is forwarded to the National Archives & Records Administration to be used as a reference resource for genealogists and other researchers.
  5. The 2020 Census was the first census to be conducted primarily online.
  6. The Census is not voluntary, but the federal government rarely enforces penalties.
  7. The Census does not consider "Hispanic" or "Latino" to be terms identifying race; instead, participants of Latin origin are asked to identify this background as their ethnicity.
  8. The Census does not ask about your religion, political affiliation or income.
  9. The amount of federal government spending distributed to state and local communities as a result of the Census is approximately $1.5 billion per year.
  10. The Census is not the same as the American Community Survey; the Census is distributed to every household once every ten years, while the Survey is distributed to about one in 38 households per year.

Source: NPR

Behind the Numbers

The U.S. Census contains a vast amount of data, but it's often overlooked as a resource both because researchers may not be aware of what's in it and because navigating it may seem complicated. Below are links to some stories about how Census data can help us understand the complexity of our ever-evolving country.

Source: U.S. Census

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