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Politics on Point: What Is the U.S. Census?

In this Politics on Point, we talk about the U.S. census and why the big count is so important. Nick walks us through why we have a census, how everyone is accounted for, and what the numbers are used for.

Class Discussion Questions: 

1) How does the census benefit you as an Ohio citizen?

2) Write a letter to a friend encouraging them to participate in the census. Give them at least three reasons to participate.

Read the Script:

[Nick] How many people are in your family? Well, that's pretty easy to count, right? What about in your neighborhood? That's a little bit harder. What's population of your city, town, or state? I certainly couldn't tell you that number off the top of my head.

And how many people are in the entire country? That's practically impossible without a little bit of help. Thankfully, every 10 years we get that help through something called the census. A census is the government's official count of how many people are living in the country.

Our census began way back with the founding of the country. It's written right into the US constitution. Why? Well, the founding fathers wanted people to hold the political power. They figured the best way to do that was by finding out how many people lived in each area of the country. Then they could divvy up the power based on population.

Now, each state gets two senators, but the number of representatives representing them in the House is determined by how many folks live there.

Because it's in the Constitution, the government must conduct a census. And it happens every 10 years. No skipping out on this math assignment.

In 1790, then-Secretary of State and future President Thomas Jefferson oversaw the first census. Federal law enforcement workers known as US Marshals traveled to the first 13 states plus soon-to-be states and visited each and every household.

They only had six questions. The name of the white male in charge of the household, the names of everyone else, which were divided into free white males at least 16 years old, free white males under 16, free white females, all other free people, and enslaved people. That total count 3,929,214. But keep in mind, at the time, enslaved people were only counted as three-fifths of a person.

A lot has changed with the census, and of course with the country. Obviously there are more people to count. This includes in US territories, like Guam and American Samoa.

There are a couple more questions too, and they are different from the original. The 2020 census asked about each person's name, age, race, and sex. There was some debate about whether to ask about a person's citizenship status, but that didn't make it onto the 2020 form.

Plus, now folks can fill it out online by phone or by mail. Still, census workers took to the streets knocking on doors to follow up with families who didn't fill out this short questionnaire.

Also remaining the same, the census is used to determine how many representatives each state gets. It's a tricky equation, but it boils down to the more people in a state, the more representatives that state gets in the House. That's why Ohio has more representatives than Delaware. Our population is just much bigger.

The census also helps the government decide how to spend federal money. Workers want to be as accurate as possible. So the government will know what communities really need. So it's up to you to make sure that you raise that hand and say, "I count."