Why do we need to count?

The idea of counting people through means of a census is not new and is not even unique to America! There have been countries counting their people for thousands of years! The earliest known census goes back to the Babylonians in 3800 BCE, with records indicating a census was undertaken about every six or seven years of not only people, but also of livestock, honey, milk, wool and vegetables. The Han Dynasty in China, The Roman Empire, the Incan Empire, and William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book all provide historical examples of the ongoing activities of government, collecting data about people and things to help fulfill the administrative duties and functions of governing organizations.

Think of it this way: Have you ever hosted a party and asked people to respond whether they plan to be there? You count on these responses to make sure there are enough places at the table for everyone coming, as well as enough food and drink! It is the same with the U.S. Census; the federal government needs to know how many people live in this country, so they can try to ensure everyone’s interests are fairly represented in government, and ensure the government has adequate knowledge about the population so there can be wise and efficient planning and distribution of resources. There are at least “50 Ways Census Data Are Used” by the U.S. government!

For over 230 years, representative democracy in America has been dependent on the ability of our government in determine how many people there are residing in each state. But the U.S. Census has also been used to accomplish political ends throughout history. As we prepare for the twenty fourth Census in U.S. History, let us look back at how the U.S. Census began and evolved over the years – and how very important it is still today.

Appendix A: 50 ways Census Data are Used. Source: 2020 Census Complete Count Committee Guide, p. 14.; US Census Bureau.

Taking census, ca. 1920. Source: National Photo Company Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress Online Catalog