What the first census counted and why 2020 will be different

This is the 2020 Census logo for Quincy, Illinois.

By Raven Ash

The upcoming 2020 census marks the 24th census in our country’s history. The first census was conducted in 1790 and since then many changes have been made.

In 1790, the first Census Day was held on Aug. 2 just seven months after President George Washington delivered the first State of the Union address. Beginning in 1930, April 1 has been the official Census Day for the past 9 censuses. The 2020 census will be on Wed., April 1.

During the first census, approximately 650 marshals of the U.S. Judicial Districts set off to count the population under the direction of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was the acting secretary of state. The marshals rode horseback through the original 13 states plus Kentucky, Maine, Vermont and Tennessee. To collect data, the marshals recorded information on pieces of parchment and animal skin.

Due to the evolution of technology through the decades, the 2020 census has the internet to its’ advantage. This year’s census will be the first census to give citizens the opportunity to respond online.  People will also be able to respond through mail and by phone.

In 2020, there many more locations to count than in 1790. The current census will count all 50 state and 5 U.S. territories. These territories include Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Throughout U.S. history, there have been many social movements regarding gender and race that have impacted the census. The first census asked only six questions: the name of the white male who was the head of the household, free white males over 16 years old, free white males younger than 16 years old, free white females, all other free people living on the property and slaves. During this time period, slaves were only counted as 3/5 of a person and the Native Americans were not counted at all. The official count of the 1790 census was 3,929,214.

A shift in values over the past 230 years ensures that in the 2020 census, every person counts no matter their gender, race or ethnic background. The questions asked in the 2020 election will be aimed at determining the number of people per household, the statistics of home ownership, statistics of age groups and ethnic groups. Monitoring ethnic groups is intended to help ensure compliance with anti-discrimination provisions.

Before the first census, the U.S. only had 65 representatives in Congress. The 1790 census allowed the government to see that more representation was needed for the states. Following the census, there were 105 representatives.

Currently, there are 435 members of the House of Representatives. The 2020 census could change the number of representatives depending on the population count of each state.

One thing that has not changed since the first census is the importance of participation. Making sure that everyone is counted in the census is essential in ensuring accurate information for government spending, state representation and businesses.

Historical information was obtained from the U.S Census Bureau and the Smithsonian Magazine.

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