Over the last century, the census has adapted to changes in technology. This year, it’s being shaped by a global pandemic.
Photo: Mobile Questionnaire Assistance sites like this one, staffed by a Northside Leadership Conference representative at the Northside Christian Health Center, are one measure the U.S. Census Bureau is taking this year to gather community data. By Lauren Stauffer
By Katia Faroun
2020 marks the start of a new decade, and with it, the government is conducting its largest operation during peacetime: the decennial census.
Every 10 years, a survey is sent out to the close to 120 million households in the U.S. to gather key statistical information about those residing in the country. The decennial census, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, consists of a questionnaire asking generally about the number of people living in a household, who they are, and what their race is. The nation has changed throughout the decades; so has the census, and its purpose.
The birth of the census dates back to the formation of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution declares that representatives and taxes will be divided among the states “according to their respective Numbers,” implying the necessity for statewide population counts. Right after the Civil War ended, this phrasing was reaffirmed in Section 2 of the 14th Amendment where it notes that state populations are to count “the whole number of persons in each State.” The article requires the enumeration to take place every 10 years, a rule that has been upheld consistently since then.
The first ever census took place in 1790, where responsibility fell upon “marshals of the U.S. judicial districts” to visit every household in their appointed district and submit their counts directly to the president. The first census inquiries called for the name of the head of the household and all free individuals and slaves of the household; it took 18 months to complete.
Over the next century, the census expanded from simple population counts to include information on hundreds of topics including demographics, agriculture, and the economy. Responsibility shifted to specifically trained census supervisors and the first statistical atlases were published, documenting data retrieved from the census questionnaires. The U.S. Census Bureau became a permanent agency within the government at the start of the 20th Century.
The Constitution only specifically mandated a population count as part of the census. It was necessary, though, according to Susan Licate, media specialist at the Philadelphia Regional Census Center, for the purpose of the census itself to expand over time.
“Since the first census in 1790, the need for useful information about the United States population and the economy became evident,” Licate explains.
For the past 100 years, the census has adapted to new technologies and economic and societal shifts. It has documented changes in national culture, such as the rising Hispanic population and the growing reports of same-sex households, in methods ranging from tallying to statistical sampling to online questionnaires. The census has evolved from its original intentions of taxing or drafting men into military service to collecting necessary statistical information about the country’s residents.
“The reason why we conduct a census is because census data is what helps lawmakers, business owners, teachers, and others provide daily services, products, and support for a community,” Licate says.
Census data has become fundamental in the allocation of resources not only across the nation, but also throughout communities in American cities. Governmental aid programs, such as the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program, rely on census data when delegating financial resources to areas in need. Specifically, this grant refers to census data to target low-income neighborhoods in need of urban community development, in the form of affordable housing and the expansion of economic opportunities.
In 2015, over $675 billion was distributed to 132 programs across the nation, according to the data received by the census. This type of funding shapes communities by flowing into areas such as infrastructure, emergency services, and housing, and according to Licate, it’s an essential responsibility of Americans.
“Everybody who’s living or staying in the United States has the right to be counted,” she says. “It is our right. Federal funding every year for the next 10 years is determined by this decennial census, and folks have the opportunity to shape their future, ensuring that their household participates in the census.”
This year, Pittsburgh had received a total of $13.5 million in CDBG funding before April, when the city received nearly $8.4 million more as part of the first COVID-19 relief package. Organizations including the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, and Casa San Jose received thousands of dollars in funding, while larger checks were set aside to help small businesses, improve homeless shelters, and aid both renters and those paying off mortgages who were affected by the pandemic.
The majority of Northside neighborhoods meet the population and median income requirements for CDBG funding. Multiple Northside organizations received CDBG funding in 2019, including the Pittsburgh Project, which received $5,500 to provide free home repairs to vulnerable, low-income homeowners, and the Northside Youth Athletic Association, which used its $12,500 to supply income-eligible youth with football gear.
According to Licate, the most notable change in the 2020 census is language accessibility. For the first time, the census is available in 13 different languages online and by phone, and includes guidance for 59 non-English languages, TTY, and Braille. Measures taken in response to the COVID-19 outbreak include the introduction of Mobile Questionnaire Assistance (MQA) sites: outdoor setups at locations where locals purchase essential goods, such as gas stations. Census takers guide people as they complete the census on their own devices. The option of filling out the census online or by phone also eliminates in-person contact between census takers and respondents.
Even though Census Day took place on April 1, an added extension due to the COVID-19 outbreak allows households to complete the census online, by phone, or by mail until Sept. 30, 2020*. After that, responses are final, and the Census Bureau begins the process of delivering the final counts to the White House.
At the time of printing, Pennsylvania’s participation rate currently stands at 65.6%, with Allegheny County ahead of that rate at 68.3%; however, certain neighborhoods in the county are falling behind on participation, and the Census Bureau needs these people to “step up and exercise their right to be counted,” according to Licate.
“It’s conducted every 10 years, and that’s why it’s so important that folks understand that the time is now. We don’t get a redo next year,” Licate says.
For those who have not received a questionnaire by mail, the 2020 census can be accessed online at 2020census.gov or by phone, in English, at 844-330-2020: A complete list of non-English languages available for census respondents via phone is available here.
*Editor’s note 8/10/2020: The original deadline published in the August newspaper was Oct. 31, 2020. On Aug. 3, 2020 the United States Census Bureau announced they were amending the deadline up to Sept. 30, 2020.
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