Grolier Encyclopedia: Census

From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia

A census is an official count at a particular time of people, houses, business firms, or other items of interest. Censuses of some sort have been made throughout human history, beginning in ancient Babylonia, Persia, China, and Egypt. The Romans carried out periodic censuses of the whole empire for purposes of recruiting and taxation; according to the biblical account, one was taking place at the time of Christ's birth. The U.S. Constitution requires that a census be made every ten years for the purpose of apportioning representatives in Congress according to population. The first census in the United States was taken on Aug. 2, 1790, and the population was found to be 3,939,214. In 1902 the U.S. Bureau of the Census was established.

A census of the U.S. population attempts to count everyone in the country at a specific time. A questionnaire is sent to every household inquiring how many persons were living there at the designated time and asking for information about sex, age, race, education, previous residences, and number of children living or dead. Some households are asked for additional information as a sample of the total population. To supplement the questionnaire, trained census workers are sent out to interview people directly.

Other census information is obtained by sampling. Computer-assisted statistical procedures make it possible to obtain useful information about many characteristics of the population in general by questioning a selected sample of persons—at a fraction of what it could cost to interrogate everyone. The census bureau also conducts annual surveys of housing and censuses every 5 years of such areas as agriculture, manufacturing, business, and service industries.

Census data are used principally by government agencies and business firms (especially for market research). Changes in the data are indispensable in forecasting trends in employment, labor resources, educational requirements, and demand for public services.

Nearly every country now conducts a census of some kind, usually at intervals of 5 or 10 years. The information obtained ranges from basic data on the size, ages, and locations of a country's population to information on migration, family composition, income, and standard of living. Censuses vary in their accuracy; questions must be skillfully framed to elicit objective answers or at least minimize the degree of inaccuracy. For example, it is known that people tend to exaggerate their amount of education and conceal information about divorces. The U.S. census has been criticized for selective undercounting, particularly of minorities and illegal aliens living in the inner cities. Undercounting affects the level of federal contributions to welfare programs as well as the apportionment of congressional representation.

In some Third World nations the problem of undercounting is more severe, especially in countries like India, with a large homeless population, or those with nomadic populations. An increasing U.S. homeless population resulted in 1990 in the first large-scale effort by the U.S. Census Bureau to count that group. Census workers visited several thousand shelters and open-air sites in cities mainly of 50,000 or more population. The total count, far below previous estimates, resulted in criticism of the methodology. For the 2000 census the U.S. Census Bureau proposed the use of statistical sampling, combined with traditional head-counting, as a means of achieving a more accurate count. Republicans in the House of Representatives challenged the proposal in court and won (August 1998). The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that ruling in January 1999.

Further Reading:

Alterman, Hyman, Counting People: The Census in History (1969).

Anderson, Margo J., The American Census: A Social History (1990).

Choldin, H. M., Looking for the Last Percent (1994).

Dodd, D. B., ed., Historical Statistics of the States of the United States: Two Centuries of the Census, 1790–1990 (1993).

Farley, Reynolds, The New American Reality (1996).

Perlmann, Joel, ed., The New Race Question: How the Census Counts Multiracial Individuals (2002).

Roberts, Sam, Who We Are (1994).

Yates, Frank, Sampling Methods for Censuses and Surveys, 4th ed. (1987; repr. 1997).

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