The US Census

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Arriving next year in your snail-mail box—the 2010 US Census questionnaire.

The form will be mailed out in March. Answer ten questions, mail the form back in the postage paid envelope by National Census Day in April, and you’re done.

Don’t follow the rules and someone will come knocking on your door. Why? By law, the Census Bureau must count everyone and submit state population totals to the president within nine months. States will receive the results in the spring of 2011.

For 2010, the Census Bureau estimates the final count could top 300 million people. That’s quite an increase from the first US population survey that took place on August 2, 1790 during George Washington’s presidency.

Back then, the handwritten census form asked six questions. The “census marshals” and their assistants knocked on all the doors they could find in the 13 original states, the districts of Kentucky, Maine, Vermont, and the Southwest Territory, and the final count came to a little over 3.9 million.

Here’s a timeline of what happened next.

1840—Creation of a temporary central census office

1880—Appointment of a superintendent of the census. Five topics with expanded questions were added to the census form, and the start date was changed to June. Because the forms had to be hand-counted, tallying the final results (50 million people) took more than nine years.

1890—Census employees used maps for the first time to find households, and a newly developed punch card machine helped speed the final tally.

1902—Establishment of a permanent Census Office

1930—Census-taking date moved to April 1. Final count: 123 million.

2002—The Census Bureau marked its 100th year.

No matter the changes, over the years the basic reason for counting every person in every state remains the same: To determine the number of US House of Representative seats allocated to each state.

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