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Census 2020: What is the Census?

A guide for resources and information about the ongoing 2020 Census.

What is the Census?

The Census is a required count of the people of the United States performed by the United States government every 10 years, as mandated by Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. In addition to a simple count of people, the decennial Census also collects other information about education, housing, and other relevant demographic data.

When is the Census?

The next Census occurs this year, 2020, dated more specifically to the first of April. However, due to the massive scale of such a large project, the Census Bureau will actually begin counting people in more remote regions of the country, such as rural Alaska, in January 2020. In May, Census workers will begin following up with households that have not responded to the Census.

Why is the Census Conducted?

In addition to providing an accurate number for the population of the United States and its territories, the Census informs a number of important decisions made by the U.S. government, such as Congressional redistricting and reapportionment and the allocation of Federal funds to local communities. The Census is also used by businesses to decide where to locate new manufacturing facilities and stores, creating jobs. The same is true of real estate developers, and emergency services providers use the Census to determine where to locate essential buildings like police and fire stations.

For researchers, the Census and the Bureau’s other surveys represent a wealth of available demographic data about the United States, providing data on jobs, education, housing, geography, and demography, to name only a few.

Who is Responsible for the Census?

The Census is conducted by the Census Bureau, a dependency of the Department of Commerce. Census data is updated and maintained online for public use. In addition to the decennial Census, the Bureau administers and collects data from a number of smaller statistical surveys, including the annual American Community Survey, the quinquennial (every 5 years) Economic Census, and monthly, quarterly, and yearly economic surveys.

How is the Census Conducted?

Historically, the Census has been conducted as an in-person survey by Census workers, who would go door-to-door to collect information on each household in the country. With the 2020 Census, there will be a number of advances made in how the Census is conducted. For the first time, the Census will offer an online response option, in addition to paper forms and over-the-phone calling, where necessary. Households in low-Internet areas will receive a paper form. Additionally, satellite imagery and GPS software are being used to verify addresses and identify areas where in-person follow-up may be required. In previous Census, address verification was done in-person.

Where can I Find Census Data?

Census data, along with other data curated by the Census Bureau, can be found through the Bureau’s data portal, at This website provides a search interface for exploring demographic data about the United States, and provides a robust system of filters to locate the data you need at an appropriate resolution. The web portal provides detailed access to data from the 2010 Census forward, with historic data available back to 1990 as decennial datasets. Earlier Census data, back to the first Census in 1790, is available as PDF files, but lack much of the searchability and detail of more recent data collections.