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Demographics, Technology, and the U.S. 2020 Census

Though 2020 is still years away, the United States Census Bureau is already gearing up for that year's census. As mandated by Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, the U.S. government is required to collect demographic information about the population every ten years.

In addition to being used to determine the number of Electoral College votes and seats in the House of Representatives each state receives, census results are an important source of data for social scientists and statisticians. Understanding demographic changes like population growth, migration, racial and ethnic diversity, family size, and other details requires a large amount of accurate data like the U.S. Census is designed to collect.

While aggregate census data is made available to the public immediately, information about individuals and households is kept confidential, even from other government agencies, as required by law. However, this law was repealed in 1941 during World War II to collect information on Japanese-Americans, which was used to identify and relocate them to internment camps. Thankfully the confidentiality law was reinstated in 1947. Currently, individual records are kept sealed for a 72-year waiting period—this means that the most recent detailed information available is from the 1940 Census.

But with the population of the United States currently at over 300 million, the price of such a project can be enormous: the 2010 census cost approximately $12 billion to conduct. Congress has directed the U.S. Census Bureau to conduct the 2020 Census at 2010 costs, despite those costs being almost seven times what the 1970 Census cost.

This is one reason the 2020 Census will be conducted at least partially online. As opposed to paper ballots, in 2020 the Census Bureau is hoping to collect information from the increasingly tech-literate American populace via the Internet. Social scientists believe that this could increase the response rate for the census; tracking down households that fail to respond the first time is a costly and time-consuming process. In 2010, the Census Bureau spent almost $2 billion tracking down nonresponders. Increasing the first-time response rate by having people fill out the census online could help eliminate these extra costs.

Population demographics is a fascinating area of the social sciences that combines statistics, behavioral sciences, psychology, and more. For more on population dynamics and statistics, check out these resources from Science NetLinks: our What Can Data Tell Us? lesson; Opinion Surveys lesson; The Demographics of Mortality lesson; Population Dynamics lesson; and our Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Collection.

Image credit: U.S. Census Bureau, Public Information Office

Originally posted on AAAS Science NetLinks.