The Four Principal Ways we Conduct The Census

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Written by: Director Robert Groves

We’re getting closer to the days when the Census request will go out to everyone. It’s probably a good time to remember the four different ways that we do the census for people who live in traditional housing units (i.e., not in group quarters like dormitories or assisted living facilities).

Mailout/Mailback The vast majority of households (about 90% of the population) will receive a census form in the mail via the US Postal Service. This partnership with the USPS has continued since 1970, when the first mailout/mailback US Census was conducted. We ask that you fill it out and mail it back by April 1.

Update/Leave In areas of the country (about 9% of the population) where mail is not delivered to residences uniformly, census staff will visited each housing unit, update our list of addresses, and leave a census form package in a plastic bag at the entrance door of the unit. This is the technique will we use in the Gulf Coast areas that were heavily affected by hurricane damage and are in the middle of their recovery.

Update/Enumerate Just like in remote Alaska, there are parts of the US (about 1% of the population) that both don’t uniformly receive mail at their residence and are far from any town. Some of these have demonstrated very low return rates of questionnaires in the past. In these areas, we will visit each housing unit and take a face-to-face interview with those in the household.

Large Military Installations At big military installations (e.g., Fort Bragg, NC) field work is coordinated with a military representative, and the Census staff is escorted to each housing unit to deliver the questionnaires. The military representative ensures that all questionnaires are returned.

The map below gives you an idea of how three of the four techniques are spread across the country. The blue areas are mailout/mailback; the tan areas are update/leave; the green areas are update/enumerate.


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10 Responses to The Four Principal Ways we Conduct The Census

  1. DC Counts says:

    Very cool map. Thanks for sharing!

  2. David says:

    Why don’t you show the article about the Census office giving Army Intelligence all the block information about Japanese-Americans taken in the 1940 Census? How do you dare tell people the information they give in the Census is private and can’t be used against them, when the U.S. Government used Census information to send Japanese Americans to concentration camps. More recently after the Patriot Act was signed, Homeland Security was given lists of counties containing clusters of Arab Americans so they could assign agents to keep an eye on them. You can’t guarantee privacy of information, so stop lying to the Hispanic community.

  3. David,
    Thank you for sharing your concerns. I want to assure you the U.S. Census Bureau takes very seriously its responsibility to protect confidentiality. It is our strong belief that the accuracy of the census depends on the willing participation and cooperation of respondents, therefore, we value respondent trust as vital to the success of the 2010 Census.
    With respect to your concerns about the Census Bureau’s activities during World War II, as we have indicated in the past, the historical record provides substantial information about the extent to which senior Census Bureau staff assisted the Army in the internment of Japanese-Americans. The Census Bureau provided non-confidential small-area data tabulations and sent a statistician to assist the Army staff in San Francisco with the internment of the Japanese on the West Coast. The records of both the Census Bureau and the Army located at the National Archives contain examples of and contemporary accounts describing the statistical tabulations.
    However, it is also important to acknowledge that the records of the Census Bureau from the World War II era indicate that the agency provided confidential microdata to executive departments and agencies, as it was legally required to do to assist the war effort. These releases were sanctioned by law, specifically the Second War Powers Act that was passed by Congress and the President in March of 1942 and was later repealed in 1947. Section 1402 of the Second War Powers Act created an exception to the confidentiality provisions of the Census Law at the time and instructed the Secretary of Commerce to make records (meaning census data) available for the war effort, and an Executive Order established a process to facilitate the release of such data. Upon request, the Census Bureau did supply many agencies with data about both individuals and companies. Examples include information about Japanese families living in Washington, DC that was shared with the Secret Service and data about companies in various industries that was shared with the Office of Price Administration and other agencies.
    It is important to note that in the post-war period, key safeguards to protect confidential information have been instituted, notably stronger legal provisions to protect data confidentiality. Specifically, Section 9 of Title 13 is clear and unequivocal: The Census Bureau collects information solely for statistical purposes and it cannot release any information that could be used to identify an individual person or business. Only sworn individuals may have access to confidential data, and to disclose such information is a federal crime for which the penalties may be up to five years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000, or both. Moreover, census data may not be used against any individual by a government agency or court.
    The confidentiality of the census has been recognized and upheld by the Supreme Court and the Census Bureau is fully committed to safeguarding and protecting the information we collect. It is also clear that over the past half-century, and especially following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the critical importance of summary data for enforcement of voting rights and civil rights stands in contrast to the use of information in the 1940s to deny civil rights to citizens of the United States of Japanese ancestry.
    For more information about the law and the precautions we take to protect information, please consult the Census Bureau’s Data Protection and Privacy Policy website,

  4. Gerald Penn says:

    I’d like to draw your attention to the large grey masses to the north and
    south of the contiguous 48 states. Did you know that there are Americans
    living there, and in many other countries around the world? Did you know
    that we are required by federal law to pay U.S. income taxes? That most of
    us use a number of federal government services, and maintain strong economic
    and personal ties with the U.S.?
    Overseas U.S. citizens, however, will not be counted in the 2010 census unless they have certain connections with the federal government (military, embassy staff, dependents of the same, etc.).
    It’s now almost four years since the U.S. Congress voted to change the
    way the foreign earned income exclusion is calculated, effectively raising taxes on every American living abroad. Consular services for U.S. citizens abroad have been steadily contracting for the last 15 years. In most states, we can only vote in federal elections, and as we share the same congressional representatives as other citizens, our voices are drowned out by vastly superior numbers of U.S. residents who do not share our unique concerns. There was a trial overseas enumeration of citizens in 2004, held in all of three countries, the results of which I can’t even find on-line. And now for the 2010 Census … zilch. We remain invisible.
    When are the U.S. government, particularly the Census Bureau, going to start taking us seriously? How can you possibly expect to provide an adequate level of consular services to us if you don’t even know where we are, or why we are here? Do you even know how many of us there are?
    I’m tempted to make a special trip to the U.S. in March, dress up as a homeless guy and just wander around a major metropolitan area, hoping to be counted at all in this sample-biased farce, albeit as a domestic resident.
    Please, guys – you can do better than this. Just name a period during which we report to a nearby U.S. consulate with our passports. This can’t be difficult.

  5. PrivateName says:

    You said, “It is important to note that in the post-war period, key safeguards to protect confidential information have been instituted, notably stronger legal provisions to protect data confidentiality.”
    Post-war period?! You must mean post-WWII period. What about the Iraqi war, the Iran war, the war on terrorism, or some future war?
    Or for that matter, what keeps the president from saying, due to the economic crisis, we are going to allow the census data to be sold to commercial companies to generate more revenue. Just a stroke of the pen, a vote of the majority, and you would be providing “confidential microdata” as you would be “legally required to do to assist the (Iraqi, Iran, terrorism, economic crisis) effort”.
    The Census Bureau may collect the data with the intent to use it solely for a purpose, but there is nothing in place to prevent the Bureau being required to release it as it was done in the past which, it appears, it readily complied with.
    I guess what I’m saying is, if you don’t want information made public, don’t give it out. The census is a count — let it stay that way.

  6. Virginia says:

    Our form was hung on our rural mailbox and it was about to rain. I was at home all day and was available and no one approached the house. It seems to me that the person hired to do the census in this area is not doing their job as trained. It is my understanding that this happened all over this area.

  7. Mar says:

    I’ve had no problem in the past w census forms/information. Ten years ago, I trusted the system.
    This year I have completed & mailed my form again. However, times have changed. With identity theft and sophisticated & international computer hackers, I did not want to give any information. We have been warned constantly to not give out information to protect our identity. I participated with great reluctance and disbelief at the expectation that I trust ‘the system’ with my information. This year’s census felt very invasive. I no longer trust that you are able to keep my info safe.
    Ten years from now, times will have changed again. I hope you are going to find another way to do this, because it will be laughable to expect anyone to respond by then to this current process.

  8. PrivateName says:

    Mar, you give too much trust. All it takes is a stroke of the pen and your information is sent out to whomever. That’s provided their security is better than banks and credit card companies. Otherwise it could be sooner.
    Get ready for the American Communist Survey (ACS) to be in ADDITION to the regular invasion of privacy. Just got one. Answers to questions: 2 adults, no children.

  9. MigiHidari says:

    What about contractors working for the military in foreign locations? We do not live on the bases. Forms have gone to our home address in US but we are in a foreign country!

  10. MigiHidari, Military and civilian federal employees (and their dependents) who are serving overseas will be tabulated in their home state, using administrative record counts from all federal agencies, including the Department of State and the Department of Defense. These federal employees will be counted for apportionment
    purposes only.
    U.S. citizens not employed by the federal government who are
    working, studying or living overseas will not be included in the census.

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