This guide sheds light on the sometimes mysterious United States Census by discussing the origins and purpose of the count, break down myths and privacy concerns, and demonstrate some of the important things funded
The United States has been counting its population for over 200 years. Beginning in 1770, the Decennial Census has been taking place every 10 years pursuant to Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution:
"Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States... according to their respective Numbers...The actual Enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Year. "
The Framers of the Constitution were breaking new ground in the 18th century. It was a radical idea to consider population as the basis for dividing power as opposed to wealth, land ownership, or ancestry. The census can be considered the bedrock and foundation of representational democracy in the United States.
Supreme Court decisions have defined the census as "linchpin of the federal statistical system … collecting data on the characteristics of individuals, households, and housing units throughout the country."
The United States Code (USC) which consolidates and codifies all federal statues by subject matter, in Title 13, subchapters 1 and 2 is the law the governs the way the census takes place, most notably by establishing the creation of the United States Census Bureau. Most importantly, 13 USC § 9 establishes that the Decennial Census is confidential and private:
“…census reports which have been so retained shall be immune from legal process, and shall not, without the consent of the individual or establishment concerned, be admitted as evidence or used for any purpose in any action, suit, or other judicial or administrative proceeding.”
Under Title 13 of the U.S. Code, the Census Bureau cannot release any identifiable information about individuals, households, or businesses, even to law enforcement agencies.
By law, 2020 Census responses cannot be used against you in any way. Not the by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), not by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), not by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and not by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The Census Bureau states:
When you trust us with your information, our goal — and legal duty — is to keep it safe.
We call our approach to maintaining your trust “Data Stewardship.”
Being responsible stewards of your data is not only required by law, it’s embedded in our culture.
Our Data Stewardship program includes ongoing training, accountability and the lifetime oath each of us swears to keep your information confidential. Our Data Stewardship Executive Policy Committee oversees these activities, setting the rules and policies all staff must follow.
Necessity: Do we need to ask this question? Do we need to collect this information?
Every time we prepare to ask a question, we determine whether the information is truly necessary. All of the information we collect is used for federal programs. We promise to collect only information necessary for each survey and census.