Enumerating residents within certain geographical areas has been a practice followed by many governments stretching back more than 2,500 years. Often, the purpose of such censuses has been related to collecting taxes, but there are also other, more beneficial reasons for counting noses.
A major purpose of the US Census is to determine the number of congressional districts or members of the 435-seat House of Representatives to be awarded to each state. The data is also used to decide on the appropriate distribution of federal government revenues to the various federal, state, and local governments—much of which is allocated by population totals or some other measure that is derived from the census.
Based on population growth rates from 2000 to 2009, the Census Bureau estimates that eight states stand to gain representatives and 10 states will probably lose them—beginning with the 2012 elections. The biggest gainer will likely be Texas, and Ohio is expected to suffer the largest loss.
Also affected by the population shifts as ascertained through the census will be the number of votes each state will have in the Electoral College for the 2012 presidential election.
Authority for the census emanates from Article I of the US Constitution. Since Benjamin Franklin was instrumental in the passage of this section, he is often considered as the father of the US Census.
Since 1790, when the nation’s first census was undertaken, the number of residents in America has been gathered by government entities, often amid swirls of controversy ranging from the length of the survey to the words chosen, as well as the method selected for the tabulation.
Incidentally, the 1790 census cost $44,000 or about 24 cents per person after adjusting for 220 years of inflation. The 2000 census inflation-adjusted per-person cost was approximately $20 while the current census is estimated to cost around $48 per person counted, perhaps more since final outlays have yet to be verified. In 2004, the General Accountability Office estimated the total cost for the 2010 census at $11 billion. The price tag has undoubtedly increased since that time.
Proposals have often been made to use statistical sampling instead of head counts to gather census information. In January 1999, the Supreme Court ruled against such a method but did allow statistical sampling methods to be used in some areas such as distributing federal monies. Given the mobility of our population and the enhanced methods and machines that are now available, we would likely achieve a much more accurate estimate at a much lower cost using statistical approaches than attempting to physically enumerate each and every one of us. But, at least for the time being, the laborious count will continue.
The 2010 census is now underway and over the next few months, practically everyone living in the US will have the opportunity to be included on the population rolls. Regardless of whether the person is homeless or lives in a mansion or whether the person is in the country illegally or is a US citizen—efforts will be made to count everyone.
Interviews for enumerator positions are ongoing and it is anticipated that many thousands will apply for the jobs that are scheduled to pay up to $20 per hour with most of the jobs lasting for approximately three to five months. The majority of the new census employees will serve as door to door workers and will be armed with credentials and question-and-answer sheets. The influx of workers will certainly prove to be something of a boost for the monthly employment data, but, by summer, most of these jobs will be completed.
These thousands of workers will be the final outreach arm of the Census Bureau in trying to locate those who did not mail back the forms which are being sent this month to everyone with a valid address. Estimates from bureau officials are that about 7% of the forms mailed to individual households, or approximately 28 million, will be lost or tossed by the recipients. Those who do not return the material will be contacted from April through July by the temporary census agents by mail, telephone, or personal visits in hopes of soliciting answers to the 10-question census form. This form is much shorter and less intrusive than that used in the 22nd decennial census in 2000.
In December, the Census Bureau will deliver the population information to the president for apportionment and over the next three months, the Bureau will provide the data to states to enable them to begin their process of redistricting.
Census taking is certainly not 100% accurate and the methods for ascertaining the information are far from infallible. There will be the inevitable lawsuits from areas that feel undercounted. Even so, though Benjamin Franklin might be amazed at the rise in the cost of the census since his time, he undoubtedly would be pleased that his ideas are being followed and continue to impact the effectiveness and efficiency of our government and our knowledge about ourselves.