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31 March 2020

The Census: It Ain't What it Used to Be

image: United States Census Bureau

Wednesday, April 1, is the deadline for all U.S. households to respond to the 2020 census.  If you somehow haven't gotten around to it, Uncle Sam will soon be in contact (though the current pandemic situation will have an impact on operations). Of course, you really want to respond to this once-in-a-decade survey, because it's essential to get an accurate count of residents in each of the 50 United States and its five territories: population determines how much funding local communities receive and how many seats each state gets in Congress.

It's super easy to fill out your census questionnaire this year: you can do it either online, by mail, or by phone. If you've already filled out your form, you probably noticed how short it is. The 2020 census consists of just 9 questions. It asks the name, sex, and birth date of every person in the household, whether the home is owned or rented, and the relationship of household members to one another. There are two questions about race and ethnicity: one for those of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin, and another for all other races, with a subcategory for the respondent's self-identified ethnic origin(s). This is likely to produce a huge variety of responses. For a fascinating look at the country's history of recording race, see this article from the Pew Research Center: "The changing categories the U.S. census has used to measure race."

Genealogists who've scoured earlier censuses for clues to an ancestor's place of birth, education, occupation, or date of immigration may find the current census sadly lacking in detail. Genealogist Judy Russell recently mused about this in a post at her Legal Genealogist blog. In fact, this is nothing new: the 2010 census was similarly brief. The government ditched the long-form questionnaire after 2000, opting instead for the American Community Survey, which is sent out every year to a small percentage of the population. It's a safe bet that most of us who are counted in this year's census won't be around when those records are unsealed in 2092. By then, genealogists will surely rely on different sources and records for their research.

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