What Is a Census?

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 12374

How do governments know what plans to make to help their citizens? The same way you will in this lesson: by counting people and finding out about them using a census! Learn how and make your own plan!


People and Their Environment

Social Studies
learning style
personality style
Lion, Beaver
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Can you easily count how many people are in a crowded room, theater, or stadium?

Imagine asking each of those people about their health, ethnicity, and other facts!

  • How does the United States government count how many people live in the United States?

There are more than 300,000,000 people currently living in the United States!

The government somehow manages to track the number of people living in America, the jobs Americans have, the amount of money families make, and the number of children living in each household.

  • What would you do if you were tasked with discovering this information?
  • How would you collect this information from more than 300,000,000 people?

According to the U.S. Constitution Article I, Section 2, Clause 3: "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers. . ."

This means the number of representatives and taxes should be proportionate to a population size. That means there has to be a way to count the United States's population.

The Founding Fathers decided to use a census, which is an official count or survey of a population. The first U.S. Census was conducted after the Constitution was ratified or passed in 1790. Since then, a population census has been taken every ten years.

historical reenactment of Colonial Americans taking a census

The first U.S. Census in 1790 only asked a few questions. Today, the U.S. Census contains a large packet of information that asks the following.

  • race and ethnicity
  • ancestry
  • the highest level of education completed
  • health
  • housing status (rent or own)
  • transportation (own car(s) or use public transportation)
  • employment and income
  • number, age, and gender of children

Every ten years, the government mails families large packets of questions. Each family completes the packet and sends it back to the government. Some people complain that the government asks too many personal questions, but the information collected by the census helps the government make essential decisions.

  • Looking at the list above, what decisions do you think the government makes with census information?

Make a list with your ideas before clicking below to check your answers (no peeking!).

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These are just a few ways the government uses census information. You can see a complete list of 50 Ways Census Data Is Used.

Examine the list, then answer the following questions.

  • What uses for census information did you find most surprising?
  • What uses for census information do you think are the most important?
  • How does the U.S. Census impact you and your family?
  • If a U.S. Census was taken in 2020, when would the next U.S. Census be taken?

Move to the Got It? section to learn about the census information collected over the past 225 years.

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