The Census | 1790-2020

The 2020 Census will impact the 118th Congress, taxation, allocation of federal funding and public policy. Since 1790 conducting a census has reflected the representative government and face of the American people.
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Why would the founders of a country include conducting a census in its constitution? Why would a country’s leaders specify the number of people whom each legislator would represent in the House of Representatives? This is exactly what the Founding Fathers of the United States did.


Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, officially directed marshals who conducted the census in the original 13 states plus the districts of Kentucky, Maine, and Vermont, and the Southwest Territory (Tennessee) on Census Day, August 2, 1790.  The U.S. Constitution designated the beginning distribution of representatives until the first census — emphasizing the form of government they were establishing. Results from the 1790 Census also determined how much states would pay in taxes to pay for the war and to fund the new country.


The 2020 Census was the 24th decennial census conducted since 1790. Its count of all people residing in the U.S. influences the 118th Congress, taxation, allocation of federal funding and public policy. Local leaders, businesses, state and national officials are among the many who turn to the census results to examine the past ten years, to face the present and to plan for the future.


We learn much more about those who reside in the U.S. each census after the 1790 enumeration of 3.9 million. That “first survey collected only a few basic data points, like the name of the head of the household and the number of people in the household,” according to the Census Bureau. Word choice and type of information sought indicate something of the concerns of each decade.


In this month’s curriculum guide, resources and Post articles provide more information about the changing census form and the country each one reflected. Inter-disciplinary activities encourage reading of maps and charts, research and consideration of the implications of a census. Students are asked to localize a census or create a family tree through census records.


Among all the numbers, responses and expressions of data, teachers may ask students to reflect on what they think about what a census reveals about America. And what Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The true test of civilization is, not the census, nor the size of the cities, nor the crops, but the kind of man that country turns out.”


May 2021

The Numbers
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Define Census
English, Government, U.S. History, World History

Ask students what they know about holding a census. Give students Word Study | What Is a Census?

Discuss the first census in the United States and its constitutional basis. Article 1, Section 2 established it on a ten-year cycle. Remember, the colonists had fought a war to gain independence. Who and how were they going to pay for it and establish a new country?

• Why was it important to the new country to hold a census?
• What questions were asked on the first U.S. census?
• Name the states, districts and territory that were included in the first census.


Origin of Census Taking
Economics, Mathematics, World History

Ask students why a country would want to count everyone living within its boundaries? And what information would be most helpful for different stakeholders and purposes?


Either ask students to research early uses of the census or be prepared to talk to students about the ancient Romans and other civilizations that conducted a census. Teachers might assign Egypt, Babylonia, China, Palestine and Rome.


Read Census Maps
Geography, Mathematics, Visual Arts

The two maps and chart accompanying “U.S. growth nears record low in census” are rich with information to be discovered. Use the headline and subheads and informational graphics to unfold the story told with data. The activity What a Census Reveals may be used with this activity.

 Review the Map It activity, Changes After a Census. Use with students to take a closer look at the map and the figures.

The National Archives and Records Administration has another approach to map reading — The Unwritten Record | Snapshot USA: 1950 Census Enumeration District Maps. These district maps will give students an experience in reading primary source maps. The National Archives plans by add over 8000 Enumeration District Maps to its online catalogue.


Explain the Numbers
Government, Mathematics, U.S. History, Visual Arts

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo began reviewing legal actions his state might take to challenge the loss of one congressional seat — by 89 people. Had there been an undercount? Had former President Trump’s proposed citizenship question deterred residents from responding to the Census form? Had those who fled hurricanes and other natural disasters not responded even though they were currently residing in New York?

Teachers could ask students to do a follow up to this issue. What did New York do? What would Minnesota do to keep the seat it gained?


An article that effectively illustrates the impact of numbers is “It Only Takes a Few People to Change Your State’s Congressional Seats.”


Teachers may also go online with students to read the graphics-heavy column by David Byler, data analyst and political columnist. “Texas’s population and political power are growing. Here’s why.” presents arguments through 2020 Census data, satellite image contrasts, and charts. Discuss the content and effectiveness of the informational graphics and the conclusions drawn by Byler. 

Picture of a People
Resource Graphic 

Enumerate Census Problems
Mathematics, U.S. Government, U.S. History

A pandemic. A president requesting a citizenship question be added to the census form. Court delays. The Supreme Court decision that a citizenship question on the 2020 census violated federal law.


Uncertainty of the census end date. Could any or all of these factors result in an under-response affecting the accuracy of the population data that determines Congressional seats and Electoral College votes? Read “Your questions about the 2020 Census, answered.”


Another Post article to read about the obstacles placed on the 2020 Census: “First batch of data from troubled census set for release.” Its online headline reflects one of the questions raised: “Can Americans trust the results of the 2020 Census?”


The Census Bureau provided many resources to be transparent and to encourage responses. For more information, see U.S. Census: What’s new in 2020?



Use Census Results for Party Gain
Government, Mathematics, Social Studies, U.S. History

An important outcome of the decennial count is the reapportionment of the House of Representatives.  Read and discuss “Shifts to South likely to benefit Republicans.


A more nuanced discussion for government and U.S. history students may be held after reading the following opinion pieces:

• “Republicans are raising self-sabotage to an art form” by columnist Jennifer Rubin addresses the Republican efforts to add a citizenship question to the census and impact on the 2020 elections.

• Rubin quotes from David Litt’s article, “The Real Census News: The GOP’s Self-Sabotage,” in Democracy Docket. Litt gives his perspective on the repercussions of an undercount of Hispanic voters, especially in Texas, Florida and Arizona.


In addition to the 2020 Census results, the Census Bureau provides data on election registration and voting. Read “2020 Presidential Election Voting and Registration Tables Now Available.”  

What can be learned about an election that had the highest voter turnout of the 21st century (66.8% of citizens 18 years and older voting)? Discuss with students how this data and the most recent census findings might be used by political strategists and candidates to plan advertising, targeted events, and other effective approaches to get voter turnout for them.


To Gerrymander or Not
Character Education, Ethics, Government, U.S. History

What happens when a state’s leaders use census data to their advantage? 

Use the Word Study, What’s a Gerrymander?, and the Inside e-Replica activity, Search | The Census and Redistricting, found in the December 2011 curriculum guide, The Road to Leadership

Read About Census Taking

Visualize Impact on Representation

Art, Data Journalism, Government, Mathematics, Visual Arts

Using the imagined states of Bluetah and Yelloware, the reporting team of Harry Stevens, Tara Bahrampour and Ted Mellnik explain the impact of a census on Congressional representation.


Read and discuss “Why your state might lose or gain clout in Congress after the census is released: Rhode Island is likely to draw the short straw in the once-a-decade reshuffling of U.S. House seats”


Have students work in pairs or groups to create a visual to explain an aspect of the 2020 Census — either on the national, state or community level.


Localize the Census
English, Mathematics, Social Studies, U.S. History

What does a census mean to a city? D.C. is a unique example of examing predictions, actual 2020 Census results and using the data to act upon the city's place in the country. Read and discuss "D.C.'s explosive growth."

In addition to the decennial census, the U.S. Census Bureau conducts more than 150 surveys to supplement the questions asked every 10 years. These surveys do not survey the whole population; they rely on sample populations to estimate national totals.


Students may find these surveys useful when writing articles to localize the 2020 Census or to get data to localize issues.


The U.S. Census Bureau now publishes monthly, quarterly, and annual statistics, in addition to the information collected from the complete Census. Some surveys you may have heard of before include the American Community Survey, Current Population Survey and the Annual Business Survey. American Housing Survey is sponsored by the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.


Conduct Your Own Census — Survey
Economics, English, Mathematics, Social Studies

One of the best ways to understand the complexity of writing, administering, tabulating and explaining a census or survey is to conduct one. Give students the guidelines in Conduct a Census — or Survey. Examples and practice exercises are included.


Build Your Family Tree
English, Psychology, Social Studies, U.S. History

The U.S. Department of Commerce offers guidance in using its census schedules to “track members of a family group over time.” Clues and specific information may be found within the many entry points. Visit Census 101: Census Research for Genealogists.


Federal law restricts access of the U.S. Census for 72 years after the original census date. What is the most recent census data that students may use? (In April 2012 the 1940 Census schedules were released.)


The National Archives and Record Administration also has tools for genealogists and many records to search. Visit Resources for Genealogists


A book to have for reference is Your Guide to the Federal Census: For Genealogists, Researchers, and Family Historians.


For additional lesson suggestions and resources, see Teachers Notes. You can count on us to provide you with classroom support. 


Post NIE Guide Editor | Carol Lange
Post NIE Guide Art Editor | Donna McCullough

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In The Know 

Apportionment Process of determining how many seats of the 435 total available each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives
 Census Counting of the population; held every ten years; a systematic method of to collect and record the data about all members of the population; an enumeration of a population
Decennial Recurring every ten years 
Differential privacy

Way to share a massive data set while protecting the privacy of individuals

Ethnicity Fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition. The key difference between race and ethnicity is that race is related with the biological variations of the mankind while ethnicity is related with the cultural and traditional variations of the mankind. 


For detailed information on use in census forms, see “Revisions to the Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity.”

Enumeration  Making or stating a list of things one after another; count things or name them one by one
Enumeration district  

An enumeration district is generally the area a single enumerator, or census taker, could cover in one census period, approximately two to four weeks. 


Family A family is a group of two persons or more (one of whom is the householder) residing together and related by birth, marriage, or adoption. All such persons (including related subfamily members) are considered as members of one family.
Family Household    

A family household is a household maintained by a family (as defined above), and may include among the household members any unrelated persons (unrelated subfamily members and/or secondary individuals) who may be residing there. The count of family household members differs from the count of family members, however, in that the family household members include all persons living in the household, whereas family members include only the householder and his/her relatives. 

Gerrymander When boundary changes are made after a census to make it easier for one political party to win future elections and to put the voting strength of the other party into as few districts as possible
Out-migration Opposite of in-migration; movement of population out of an area, especially from one’s own country or state to settle in another

The racial categories included in the census questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically. In addition, it is recognized that the categories of the race item include racial and national origin or sociocultural groups. People may choose to report more than one race to indicate their racial mixture, such as “American Indian” and “White.” People who identify their origin as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be of any race.

OMB requires five minimum categories: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.


Revise the physical boundaries of voting or legislative districts

1. 37 states; 2. Seven states will lose a representative; 3. Oregon, Mont., Colo., N.C. and Fla.; 4. Texas will gain two; 5. The total seats in the House of Representatives, which is currently 435, is set by law. 6. 34,000 residents x 105 representatives = 3,570,000 residents; 7. Answers will vary by state; be sure students tell where and how they found this number; 8. The map with this activity will provide one piece of information; 9. Answers will vary. This will be a time when gerrymandering may be discussed. 10. Answers will vary.

District of Columbia Public Schools Academic Content Standards 

The District of Columbia has adopted the Common Core State Standards in reading and mathematics. In addition, DCPS has adopted new learning standards in arts, health and physical education, science, social studies, technology and world languages.


Reading Standards for Literature



Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.



Determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.



Academic Content Standards may be found at

Maryland Academic Content Standards 

Social Studies. Middle School United States History Framework.

Students shall inquire about the historical development of the fundamental concepts and processes of authority, power, and influence with particular emphasis on civic reasoning in order to become informed, responsible citizens, engage in the political process, and contribute to society. (Standard 1.0 Civics)


Social Studies. High School U.S. History Framework.

Students will evaluate the progress made toward equality by:

  • Analyzing how the post 1965 shifts in immigration patterns affected public policy. (Unit 4)


American Government Framework: The Legislative Branch.

The student will explain roles and analyze strategies individuals or groups may use to initiate change in governmental policy and institutions by:

  • Explaining tools used by political parties, interest groups, lobbyists, candidates, the media and citizens to impact elections, public policy, and public opinion.

  • Evaluating how the roles and strategies that individuals and groups use to influence government policy and institutions affect the concepts of government.




The Maryland Voluntary State Curriculum Content Standards can be found online at

Virginia Academic Content Standards 

Government. The student will apply social science skills to understand the Constitution of the United States by

d) defining the structure of the national government outlined in Article I, Article II, and Article III GOVT. 4)


Government. The student will apply social science skills to understand local, state, and national elections by

d)   investigating and explaining the impact of reapportionment and redistricting on elections and governance (GOVT. 6)



English. The student will read, interpret, analyze, and evaluate nonfiction texts.

a)   Analyze text features and organizational patterns to evaluate the meaning of texts.

b)   Recognize an author’s intended audience and purpose for writing.

c)   Skim materials to develop an overview and locate information.

d)   Compare and contrast informational texts for intent and content.

e)   Interpret and use data and information in maps, charts, graphs, timelines, tables, and diagrams.

f)   Draw conclusions and make inferences on explicit and implied information using textual support as evidence.

g)   Analyze and synthesize information in order to solve problems, answer questions, and generate new knowledge.

h)   Analyze ideas within and between selections providing textual evidence.

i)    Summarize, paraphrase, and synthesize ideas, while maintaining meaning and a logical sequence of events, within and between texts.  (10.5)


Academic Content Standards may be found at

Common Core Standards 

Language. L.9-10.5 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.


Reading: Informational Text. RI.9-10.8. Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.


Mathematics. Statistics & Probablility. CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.HSS.MD.A.1

Develop a probability distribution for a random variable defined for a sample space in which probabilities are assigned empirically; find the expected value. 




Common Core standards may be found at