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!


Can you easily count how many people are in a crowded room or a 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!

Somehow, the government manages to keep track of how many people live in America, what jobs Americans have, how much money families make, and how many children live in each household. If you were tasked with finding out all of this information, what would you do? How would you collect this information from more than 300,000,000 people? Discuss your ideas with your teacher or parent.

According to the U.S. Constitution, “Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among several states which […], which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of persons in each state” (Article 1, Section 2 and later amended in Amendment 14). The Founding Fathers were saying the number of representatives and taxes should be proportionate to a population size. That means there has to be a way to count the population of the United States.

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 census of the population has been taken every ten years.

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:

  • race and ethnicity
  • ancestry
  • 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 the government is asking too many personal questions, but the information collected by the Census helps the government make important decisions. Looking at the list above, what types of decisions do you think the government makes with census information? Discuss your response with your teacher or parent, then click on the interactive below to check your answers (no peeking!):

These are just a few of the ways the government uses census information. You can see a complete list by visiting 50 Ways Census Data Are Used (The State of New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development). Examine the list, then discuss the following questions with your teacher or parent:

  • 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 the last U.S. Census (as of 2017) was taken in 2010, when will the next U.S. Census be taken?

When you are finished discussing the questions, move on to the Got It? section to learn more about the census information that has been collected throughout the past 225 or more years.

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