Why We Count: Geographers and the US Decennial Census

My first job out of graduate school, before I was even finished with my PhD, was at the US Census Bureau in Washington, DC. I joined shortly after Census 2000, following the advice of one of my advisors who had spent a very happy year’s sabbatical with the Population Distribution group and believed it would be a good place for me to start my career. He wasn’t wrong. My arrival coincided with the best part of the 10-year census cycle, avoiding the dry, quiet mid-decade years, as well as the ramping-up period that immediately precedes the count, and being tasked with only the fun part: analyzing the data (Fig. 1) and helping to tell the story of a decade of U.S. population change.

Figure 1: Census 2000 Migration Analysis

Source: Migration of the Young, Single, and College Educated: 1995 to 2000, https://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/censr-12.pdf

Much has since changed. Census 2000 was the last decennial census to include the long form—the sample of “fun” questions that asked a subset of the population about income, education, commuting, ancestry, migration, and so on. This meant that the post-census years were overwhelmingly rich with information that hadn’t been collected for a decade. Nowadays we have the American Community Survey (ACS) to provide more timely, ongoing information and rely on the decennial census only for the “short form” data: housing type and age, race, ethnicity, sex, and household relationship for each person living in a housing unit (see Figure 2 for Census 2010 short form).

Over the years, I’ve moved on from the Census Bureau and into more traditional academic positions. However, although it has been almost 20 years since I’ve worked directly with the census, my research still depends on census data. This is common for US-based population geographers, as well as sociologists, demographers, and other social scientists—what the census lacks in detail and frequency it makes up for in geographic detail and numbers (theoretically 100 percent of the population!). Along with the ACS, the census allows us to answer “what” and “where”. Other Census Bureau surveys, such as the Current Population Survey (CPS), can offer detail and frequency, but not the tract-level information many of us need and want.

Figure 2: First page of Census 2010 Form

Source: https://www.census.gov/history/pdf/2010questionnaire.pdf

The Census is “geography” in so many more ways than published research. True, it’s all about counting people, which on the face of it sounds like demography. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and there isn’t a single aspect of the Census that is not about place and geography. Start with the purpose of the Census: the drawing and delineation of geographies of representation. Undercounts—groups and individuals the Census fails to count—are also geographical, concentrated in particular places.

In fact geography underpins every aspect of the Census Bureau’s work—an entire division of the Decennial Census programs is devoted to Geography. This makes sense: a first step to counting people is updating and maintaining address files of housing units across the entire country. For many US-based geographers, our first encounter with the Bureau is often in search of geographical and not demographic data: TIGER/line files of roads, state or county boundaries, for example.

The combination of geographic and demographic data produces other information that we consume in our academic and personal lives. Ever hear people talking about the Columbus, Ohio, metropolitan area and wonder how decisions about metro areas are made? Working with the Census Bureau, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) decides on metropolitan (and micropolitan) standards following public consultation—for example, what ties counties together as a metropolitan unit? These rules or “delineations” are then applied to Census Bureau data and lists and geographies of metro areas are published. These geographies are used by a wide range of academic researchers and policymakers, but also—very importantly—are used for disbursement of federal funding. So we rely on the Census Bureau not only for counting people but also drawing the boundaries of everyday political life that affect every one of us.

As I grow older, I admit I am less interested in the geographies of the census and more fascinated by the way in which our census both leads and follows, where social change is concerned. What do we measure? Where? For whom? Our census is socially constructed and I believe this is something to be proud of—every decade, different questions are asked and the ways of answering evolve. Where once enumerators made decisions about the race of respondents, now individuals self-identify. Where once race was categorical and unidimensional, now the form strives to capture the nuances of identity (more than one race, but also combinations of race). Where once the “head of household”—the person completing the Census form—was assumed to be the male breadwinner, now we simply have a “householder.” Where once same-sex households were assumed to reflect respondent error, now the form explicitly makes space for a wider variety of household types. Is this perfect? No! Many of these changes were demanded: the Census Bureau followed, not led. I do believe it reflects a society wrestling with difficult concepts, though, and I would encourage each of us in our research and private lives to help push our survey instruments to continue to evolve.

Moreover, the struggle to accurately measure mutable concepts and identities is simultaneously a statistical and social quandary—this is interesting and challenging! The 2020 form, for example, still asks for respondent “sex” and offers two responses: male and female. Many would argue that while this question may be technically correct, it does not capture current social understanding of gender identity. How future forms efficiently* capture both biological/assigned-at-birth sex as well as gender—and how these are then tabulated—will be challenging in many ways, but also worthwhile. The questions we ask say as much about who we are as the responses.

A final thing to be proud of (and know about): census data are free and accessible. A strong data infrastructure has emerged over time to facilitate and preserve this access, both at the Bureau but notably through NHGIS and IPUMS.

Happy Census 2020! It’s likely to be a historical census** and possibly not in a good way (pandemics are not good for censuses). Be counted and remember that geographers count!

* because a long, complicated form is less likely to be completed

** it will be in good company; most of the 1890 files were destroyed in a 1921 fire


Rachel Franklin
Professor of Geographical Analysis
Spatial Analytics and Modelling Lab: SAM@Newcastle
Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies (CURDS)
School of Geography, Politics and Sociology
Newcastle University

Editor, Geographical Analysis

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