Behind the US Census

Article by Neha

Edited by Madeleine and Audrey

How Does the Census Work?

The word census is an obscure term. Merriam Webster defines it as “a usually complete enumeration of a population.” The function of a census is to count each individual in a population, yet even the dictionary definition throws uncertainty on the current state of censuses with “usually complete.” This type of uncertainty reflects on a bigger problem: under-count in the census.

In the U.S, the census is conducted once every decade by workers from the U.S. Census Bureau. All residents of the U.S. and its five territories are required by law to fill out the census form. Questions on the form include name, date, sex, date of birth, relation to family members, and race. Though the U.S. census is said to be thorough, a rising issue is its consistent under-count. 

Consequences of an under-count

Under-count, simply defined as an uncounted group of individuals in the population, seems like it will not have much impact. 

However, the gravity of the U.S. census gives under-count a new meaning.

The U.S. census has a direct correlation to the number of seats your state holds in the House of Representatives, which contributes to the number of electoral votes allotted to your state in the presidential election. It also dictates the amount of funding your state acquires in the next ten years from the federal government.

If a large enough amount of the population goes under-counted in your community, there are severe losses on all fronts: political representation in voting, representation in Congress, and billions of dollars in running local services and infrastructures; examples including free or reduced lunches, construction, education, and Medicaid. 

Since the U.S. Census is a huge undertaking, it occurs every ten years. In the case of population increase or decrease, electoral districts will be adjusted or redrawn, which can change electoral votes.

Businesses also utilize the U.S. Census for company decisions. They analyze data on their target communities using growth projections and population trends. Under-count influences their analysis and key decisions, such as locations of expanding business operations and recruiting new employees. Both business owners’ and the federal government’s need for accurate census results have increased in previous years. 

Past examples of under-count

In the 2010 U.S. Decennial Census, the net under-count rate for minors was 1.7%. The percentage may seem relatively low, but it amounts to 1.3 million children being left out of the census. Demographer and data analyst William O’Hare presents this information in his book Emerging Techniques in Applied Demography, which states that children are at most risk for under-count. 

In the 2012 U.S. Census Bureau Report, the 2010 Census is shown to have missed an estimated 16 million people, whereas, on the flip side, 8.5 million people were counted more than once.

The question of whether minority status influences the accuracy of the U.S. census has grown increasingly relevant in recent years. The 2012 Bureau Census Report furthers that Black residents were under-counted in the last three decennial censuses. In the 2010 Census, Black residents were under-counted by 2.07%. Hispanic residents and Indigenous populations living on tribal reservations were under-counted in 1990 and 2010, specifically under-counted in 2010 by 1.54% and 4.88% respectively.

Currently, under-count, especially under-count of minority populations and children, impact the U.S. census, which affects your community welfare.

The solution is to fill out the census and encourage your community members to do the same.

To respond for your family in the 2020 census during the COVID-19 pandemic, fill out the 10 minute questionnaire below. All information is required by law to be kept confidential and will only be used for statistics (US Census Bureau).

If interested in learning more about under-count in the U.S. Census:,to%20their%20race%20and%20ethnicity.


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