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An official count of the population of a particular area, such as a district, state, or nation.

The U.S. Constitution requires that a census of the entire population, citizens and noncitizens alike, be made every ten years (Article I, Section 2, Clause 3). The FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT to the Constitution directs that the census will be used to determine the number of members of the U.S. House of Representatives from each state. The census is conducted by the U.S. CENSUS BUREAU, an agency established in 1899 within the U.S. COMMERCE DEPARTMENT. The data gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau are used by the states to draw boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts, and by local governments to establish districts for other representative bodies such as county legislatures, city councils, and boards of supervisors.

Census data are also used to allocate federal and state funding and services. By the mid-1990s, more than $50 billion in federal aid for education, housing, and health programs to states and cities was distributed annually based on census numbers. In addition, census information is used in academic research and is sought by product manufacturers and marketers who want to know the demographics of potential consumers.

The first U.S. census took place in 1790 when some six hundred U.S. MARSHALS went door-to-door counting approximately 3.9 million people. The 1790 census consisted of fewer than ten questions, which for each household included the name of the head of the family, the number of free white males over and under 16 years of age, the number of free white females, the number of all other free persons, and the number of slaves.

The 1890 census counted 63 million U.S. citizens and reflected a dramatic increase in immigration, urbanization, and industrialization. That census showed that for the first time fewer than half of all U.S. workers were employed on farms. The 1890 census included questions regarding military service during the Civil War, number of years in the United States, naturalization status, reading and writing ability, and mental and physical disabilities.

By 1980, the Census Bureau conceded that the decennial censuses were undercounting portions of the population, usually low-income and minority groups in the inner cities. In follow-up surveys after the 1980 census the bureau determined that it had missed some 3.2 million persons, or 1.4 percent of the population. For example, a 1986 post-census survey of East Los Angeles estimated that the 1980 census missed about ten percent of the Latino community, seven percent of the Asian community, and nine percent of the black community. Census officials determined that overall, nearly six percent of the black and Hispanic populations were uncounted

and less than one percent of the white population.

By May 1987, the Census Bureau had determined that the 1990 census could be adjusted for undercounting by using a technique called a post-enumeration survey (PES). The PES would allow the census to be checked for accuracy by sending census takers back to a given number of households that would be representative of the entire U.S. population and comparing the information gathered with the initial head count. If discrepancies arose, the bureau could make corrections and project them to neighborhoods with similar demographic characteristics.

But in October 1987, officials from the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, decided against making any statistical adjustment to the 1990 census. As a result, in 1988, New York, Los Angeles, and several other cities, as well as a number of states and organizations, brought suit in federal district court. They claimed that the secretary's decision not to adjust the 1990 census violated their right to EQUAL PROTECTION under the FIFTH AMENDMENT to the Constitution and asked the court to enjoin the census. They also argued that the Commerce Department's actions were politically motivated by a Republican administration that realized that the undercounted population is historically Democratic. The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, contending that the secretary's decision was not subject to JUDICIAL REVIEW. In City of New York v. United States Department of Commerce, 713 F. Supp. 48 (E.D.N.Y. 1989), the district court denied the motion to dismiss, holding that the plaintiffs had standing (the legal right) to challenge the census on constitutional grounds and that the court could review the secretary's decision.

Following the district court's decision the parties entered into a stipulation in July 1989 by which plaintiffs would withdraw their motion to enjoin the census and the Commerce Department would reconsider its 1987 decision not to adjust the 1990 census. The agreement required the Commerce Department to conduct a PES of not fewer than 150,000 households as part of the 1990 census in order to produce corrected counts usable for congressional and legislative reapportionment and redistricting. The agreement also required the department to develop guidelines under which the secretary would assess any proposed adjustment. In March 1990 the Commerce Department issued final guidelines. The plaintiffs challenged them in court on the grounds that they were impermissibly vague and were biased against any adjustment to the 1990 census. In City of New York, 739 F. Supp. 761 (E.D.N.Y. 1990), the district court held that the guidelines satisfied the defendants' obligations under the 1989 stipulation. The Census Bureau then began the 1990 census.

The 1990 census employed more than 425,000 workers who gathered information on an estimated 250 million people in 106 million households. For the first time, the Census Bureau combined technology with traditional door knocking, using coast-to-coast computerized maps of all 7.5 million census tracts in the United States. The bureau predicted that these maps would reduce the number of errors caused by census workers' reliance on outdated state and local maps. The census cost some $2.6 billion—65 percent more than the 1980 census—making it the most expensive count ever conducted.

In March 1990, the bureau mailed or hand delivered more than 106 million questionnaires, one to every household in the United States. Most households received a short form consisting of 14 questions covering personal characteristics and housing. One in six U.S. households received a long form with 45 additional questions on topics such as utilities, tax, mortgage, and rent payments; place of birth; ethnic origin; and work habits. From March to June 1990 census workers continued the data collection. The bureau set aside March 20, 1990, as "homeless night." On that night, census takers, many hired from among the homeless population or those who worked with them, visited shelters and low-cost motels from 6:00 P.M. to midnight; counted homeless people on the streets from 2:00 A.M. to 4:00 A.M.; and from 4:00 A.M. to 6:30 A.M. stood outside abandoned buildings, counting those who emerged.

The homeless count caused a great deal of controversy. The 1990 census reported 228,600 HOMELESS PERSONS in the United States, compared with earlier estimates of 500,000 to 3 million. Advocates for homeless persons argued that the Census Bureau had surveyed only a third of the country's cities and counties and had visited only a limited number of locations. The bureau acknowledged that its workers had avoided actually going into hideaways such as abandoned buildings and dumpsters because of safety concerns and admitted that many winter shelters had closed by the time the census was taken in late March. The bureau maintained that its homeless survey was not intended to produce a definitive count of the homeless population.

In October 1990, the Census Bureau issued estimated U.S. population figures of approximately 254 million, based on a tracking of birth, death, and immigration records. In December, the bureau released a final U.S. population tally of some 249 million, based on the actual mailed census questionnaires and house-to-house interviews. The discrepancy between the two sets of numbers indicated that the 1990 census missed some five million U.S. residents.

By December 31, 1990, the bureau reported to the president population figures for each state as well as the number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives that each state would receive. Between January and March 1991, states with early deadlines for redrawing legislative districts received totals of all persons of voting age, broken down by race. By April 1, 1991, most other states received the voting age and race data. Between April 1991 and 1993, the Census Bureau released statistics compiled from the long forms, including information on income, marital status, disabilities, types of housing, and education.

In April 1991, the bureau announced the results of its PES. Estimates drawn from the PES revealed that the census had resulted in a national undercount of 2.1 percent, or approximately 5.3 million persons out of a total population of approximately 255 million, the largest undercounting in the history of the census. For example, in one south central Los Angeles neighborhood, officials determined that census takers had underreported the number of occupants in 38 percent of 5,800 households. As expected, the undercount was greater for members of racial and ethnic minorities. Hispanics were undercounted by 5.2 percent, Native Americans by 5.0 percent, African Americans by 4.8 percent, and Asian Pacific Islanders by 3.1 percent. The PES-calculated undercount for non-African Americans was 1.7 percent and for non-Hispanic whites, 1.2 percent. Among major cities with high undercounts were Los Angeles (5.1 percent), Houston (5 percent), Washington, D.C. (5 percent), Dallas (4.8 percent), Miami (4.6 percent), Detroit (3.5 percent), and New York (3 percent).

Among the reasons given for the low counts were that certain segments of the population did not believe the Census Bureau's promise that information is confidential and will not be shared with other government agencies such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the local housing authority, or the police; did not have addresses and thus were missed because the 1990 census was conducted primarily by mail; lived in urban high-crime areas where census takers were afraid to go door-to-door; were illegal immigrants; feared the government in general; or lacked proficiency in English.

According to the bureau, if the adjusted count were adopted, Arizona and California would each gain a seat in the House of Representatives and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania would each lose one seat. These discrepancies led state officials to renew their plea for an adjustment of the census using the PES.

In July 1991, Secretary of Commerce Robert A. Mosbacher announced his decision not to adjust the 1990 census to account for the estimated five million people undercounted by the census. Mosbacher said that although he was troubled by the undercount of minorities, his decision supported the integrity of the census and that the resulting disadvantage to minorities should not be remedied in the official census. He also expressed concern that adjustment might not improve distribution of representatives among the states and that uncertainty as to the methods of adjustment and assumptions behind them might cause even more dispute about the accuracy of the census.

The plaintiffs in Wisconsin v. City of New York 517 U.S. 1, 116 S. Ct. 1091, 134 L. Ed. 2d 167 (1996), attacked the secretary's decision, contending that it was tainted by partisan political influence and violated the Constitution, the ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEDURE ACT OF 1946, and the 1989 stipulation agreed to by both parties in the case. After a 13-day bench (non-jury) trial, the district court concluded that it could not overturn the secretary's decision (City of New York, 822 F. Supp. 906 [E.D.N.Y. 1993]). On appeal, the court of appeals concluded that, given the admittedly greater accuracy of the adjusted count, the secretary's decision was not entitled to be upheld without a showing by the secretary that the refusal to adjust the census was essential to the achievement of a legitimate government objective (City of New York, 34 F.3d 1114 [2d Cir. 1994]). On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Second Circuit,

Census workers in a Phoenix, Arizona, data capture center. For the 2000 Census, the bureau planned to hire 850,000 temporary employees to assist its 6,000 permanent employees.

holding that the secretary's decision not to adjust the census was within the government's discretion (___ U.S. ___, 134 L. Ed. 2d 167, 116 S. Ct. 1091 [1996]).

By October 1991, at least five state legislatures had filed requests under the FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT (FOIA) (5 U.S.C.A. § 552 et seq.) to see the adjusted census figures in order to decide which set of numbers should be used to redraw state political boundaries. Secretary Mosbacher refused to make the adjusted numbers public, claiming they were flawed and their release could disrupt the redistricting process. In Assembly of California v. United States Department of Commerce, 797 F. Supp. 1554 (E.D. Cal. 1992), California state officials brought an action under the FOIA to enjoin the Commerce Department from withholding computer tapes containing statistically adjusted census data for California. The department claimed that the information was protected from disclosure under an exemption to the FOIA. But the district court said the exemption did not apply to the census data and ordered the Commerce Department to release the tapes. The court of appeals affirmed the district court's order to release the tapes (Assembly of California, 968 F. 2d 916 [9th Cir. 1992]).

In a similar case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reached the opposite result. In Florida House of Representatives v. United States Department of Commerce, 961 F. 2d 941 (11th Cir. 1992), the Florida House of Representatives brought a FOIA action to compel the Commerce Department to release all the adjusted census data for Florida. The district court granted SUMMARY JUDGMENT for Florida and the Commerce Department appealed (Florida House of Representatives, No. TCA 91-40387-WS [N.D. Fla. 1992]). The Eleventh Circuit reversed, finding that the census data were exempted from disclosure under the FOIA. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case (Florida House of Representatives, 506 U.S. 969, 113 S. Ct. 446, 121 L. Ed. 2d 363 [1992]).

In light of the controversy over the 1990 census, government officials and demographers debated how best to conduct the census in 2000 and later. Many demographers argued that the U.S. population had become too mobile and too uncooperative to allow reliance on mail-in-surveys and door-to-door interviews. An increase in the number of non-English speakers, undocumented immigrants, and homeless persons makes census taking more difficult and residents will become more diverse and less tolerant of government intrusion in the future. The American Statistical Association urged the government to use scientific sampling surveys to estimate the population that has been the most difficult to count.

In preparation for the 2000 census the bureau conducted a test census in the spring of 1995 at three sites—Paterson, New Jersey; Oakland, California; and six parishes in northwestern Louisiana. The sites were selected because of their ethnic diversity and their large number of multidwelling housing units. In Paterson the bureau experimented with a multimedia kiosk, which allowed residents to answer census questions by touching a screen. In Oakland all identified households were sent a census form and blank forms were also made available at libraries, post offices, and the STATE DEPARTMENT of motor vehicles. The bureau also experimented with using statistical samples from random surveys to estimate total population.

From these test projects the Census Bureau announced that it would use statistical sampling to take into account historically undercounted populations. These populations included minorities, renters, children, poor persons, and illegal ALIENS. Although the American Statistical Association supported this approach as a valid methodology, the announcement set off a political firestorm. Congressional Republicans, worried that sampling would lead to congressional APPORTIONMENT that favored the DEMOCRATIC PARTY, filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the proposed practice.

The Supreme Court, in Commerce Dept. v. U.S. House of Representatives, 525 U.S. 316, 119 S. Ct. 765, 142 L. Ed. 2d 797 (1999), ruled, in a 5–4 decision, against the use of statistical sampling, holding that the 1976 amendments to the Census Act (1954) prohibit the use of statistical sampling for purposes of population head counts. Justice SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR, writing for the majority, stated that there had been over two hundred years of history "during which federal census statutes have uniformly prohibited using statistical sampling for congressional apportionment."

The 2000 census revealed that the U.S. population had grown to approximately 281 million. There was little public controversy over the results, a sharp contrast to the 1990 census. However, one state did file suit in an attempt to throw out census figures derived from a method the state considered impermissible sampling. Utah, noting that its population grew by 30 percent in ten years, was disappointed it did not gain another seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In reviewing the census data it noted that the Census Bureau had relied on a statistical method called imputation to estimate the number of members of a household that census takers could not contact after repeated efforts. Utah discovered that if it could have these imputed numbers removed from the population count it would gain a House seat that had been awarded to North Carolina.

A three-judge panel heard Utah's lawsuit but dismissed it at the urging of the Commerce Department. The panel ruled that the imputation method was not impermissible under the 1999 Supreme Court decision and that it did not violate the Constitution's Census Clause. The Supreme Court, in Utah v. Evans, 536 U.S. 452, 122 S. Ct. 2191, 153 L. Ed. 2d 453 (2002), upheld the lower court ruling. The Court, in a 5–4 decision, dismissed Utah's contention that actual enumeration under the Census Clause was intended as a description of the only methodology for counting U.S. citizens. As for the imputation method, the Court saw it as different from sampling: "sampling seeks to extrapolate the features of a large population from a small one, but the Bureau's imputation process sought simply to fill in missing data as part of an effort to count individuals one by one."

The Census Bureau has established at its website (<http://www.census.gov>) a portal for accessing all 2000 census data. The site provides researchers with tables of data while also providing the public with breakdowns of data in easily searchable formats.


Anderson, Margo J. 1990. The American Census: A Social History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press.

Katz, Bruce, Robert Lang, and Franklin Raines. 2003. Redefining Urban and Suburban America: Evidence from Census 2000. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.

U.S. Census Bureau. Available online at <www.census.gov> (accessed May 28, 2003).



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