At its most basic function, the census counts the number of people living in the United States. These numbers are used to decide how many seats each state will hold in the House of Representatives. The extra questions on the census form are used to give the federal government information on how best to spend funds for infrastructure and services.
Questions about why the federal government wants certain information, as well as privacy concerns, seem to crop up every census. This year, the U. S. Census has set up an interactive form on its website to explain why these ten particular questions were so important to ask. The following are the ten questions every person living in the United States as of April 1, 2010 must answer:
1. How many people were living or staying in this house, apartment or mobile home on April 1, 2010? The basic census question.
2. Were there additional people staying here that you did not include? The census has asked this question since 1880, in case the respondent has forgotten or not included newborns, foster children, adult relatives, roommates, live-in babysitters or people staying at a house temporarily.
3. Is this house, apartment or mobile home: owned by someone in the household with a mortgage/loan, owned by someone in the household free and clear, rented, occupied with no rent? This question has been on the U. S. Census since 1890, using home ownership as a gauge of economic health. It is also used to plan housing programs.
4. What's your telephone number? A phone number allows the Census Bureau to follow up if you have missed answers or left incomplete information.
5. First name, middle initial and last name for every person in the household. The answers to this question could be gold to future family members doing their own genealogy work in 2082, when the 2010 population schedule becomes available to the public. The Census Bureau assures complete confidentiality with this information by federal law.
6. Sex of each person in the household. This question is a golden oldie, having been asked since the first census in 1790.
7. Age and date of birth for every person in the household. Asked since 1800, a picture of the different age demographics in the U. S. allows the government to forecast Social Security and Medicare needs.
8. Hispanic/Latino origin (if any) for each person in household. A 1970 question, figures on the Latino population in the United States let the federal government monitor compliance with anti-discrimination laws while state and local governments may use the numbers to plan programs. Choices include no Latino origin, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or other Latino origin.
9. Race of each person in household. This has been asked since the first census in 1790, but the options today are different from those of the 18th century. Choices include White, Black/African American/ Negro, American Indian or Alaska Native (must print tribe), Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, Asian Indian, Other Asian, Hawaiian, Samoan, Guamanian/Chamorro, other Pacific Islander or other race (must print out name of race). Always a contentious issue, this data is used to plan congressional districts and funding, according to the Census Bureau.
10. Does each person in household live anywhere else? If you answer "yes" to this question, you must fill in where else the person lives: military, college, seasonal or second residence, for child custody, jail, in a nursing home or other. This question ensures that the Bureau gets an accurate number of people in the household.
Before filling out information for each additional person in the household, the respondent must also indicate that person's relationship to the head of the household. "It requires less information than a typical credit card application," advises the Census Bureau on its website, pointing out that it won't ask for any financial information or a social security number.
For respondents with privacy concerns, those words might be reassuring; for genealogists, it's clear that the information genealogists of 2082 dig up on us won't be nearly as thorough as previous censuses. The 2010 census results will give no information on marital status, place of birth, place of parent's birth or military service.
As the 21st century draws to a close for those future genealogists, however, there will probably be genealogical resources we can't even imagine; few people filling out the 1990 census could have foreseen that by 2010 people would be able to pore over past censuses using a computer in the comfort of their own home. Will we even still need the census as a genealogical tool by 2082? It's something to ponder as you fill out your form this spring.