“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1). This first verse of what is known to Christians as the Christmas story also details another important historical event: the census. Even though Caesar was undoubtedly interested in the names and numbers of people under Roman rule for tax purposes, the count was a census.
A census may unofficially refer to anything that is counted for a specific purpose. It may be made of the number of animals in a shelter, for example, or residents in a nursing home. However, this tally, in its strictest form, is an official enumeration of the population.
The first count of the U.S. population was conducted in 1790, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In those days, and for many decades to follow, the census was conducted entirely by people going from house to house, gathering information from each family they spoke with. They took information about the number of people in the home, sex, age, occupation, information about the home’s structure, and so on. Later, the agency began mailing out forms and followed up with visits from census-takers if the forms were not mailed in.
The U.S. census is a huge undertaking, which probably explains why it is done only once every ten years. The Bureau hires over 800,000 temporary workers for the job. Censuses always reveal vital information about a country, including ethnic diversity and dispersion, income, poverty, baby booms, and other population trends.
In the United States, this information is crucial when considering how government dollars will be spent. It can also determine how many seats in Congress a state may have, since Congressional seats are determined by population. Votes in the electoral college are determined by Congressional seats, so it is not fantasy to say that the census might help determine the next president.
U.S. census records are released in their entirety when they are 70 years old. This helps protect the privacy of participants and their families. However, these records are also a valuable resource for those researching their family histories or the history of a town or city. The detailed lists of parents and children, their addresses and occupations, descriptions of their homes and the like may help locate missing ancestors or missing property.
Accurate information is critical in determining everything from a nation’s population to its average income, from the birth rate to the death rate. The census is a necessary part of making sure a government is doing what it is supposed to do.