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Need to know ~ Topics & Events

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The 2020 United States Census

1940 US Census Poster

Image: United States Library of Congress, Public Domain


Why current?


The U.S. Census is a count of the nation’s population.  It includes information about people, like age, racial identity, sex, and size of household.  This count is done every ten years.  Its purpose is to paint a broad picture of the U.S. population and track how the face of America is changing over time.  Census results are used to determine how funding from the federal government is distributed among communities across the country.  Population statistics also decide how many representatives each state will have in the U.S. Congress (the more populace the state, the greater its representation in the federal government).

The first results of the 2020 U.S. Census were released in April 2021, followed by additional data that came out on August 12, 2021.  The numbers show that, while the population of the United States did grow since the last census in 2010, it increased by only 7.3% (from 308.7 million in 2010 to 331.4 million in 2020).  Not since the era of the Great Depression in the U.S. (1930-40), was the nation’s population growth so slow.

Read on to learn what else the 2020 U.S. Census revealed.

Eye-opening data

– Just about all population growth over the past ten years occurred in America’s cities and metro areas (meaning suburbs).  86% of the U.S. population lives in or around cities.  Many of the urban centers that saw the most substantial increases are in the southern and western parts of the country. 

– On the other hand, while cities grew, small towns and rural areas shrank.  52% of counties lost population since 2010.

– Data collected about racial/ethnic identity showed that, while the white population is still the largest of all groups in the country, it declined by 8.6% since 2010.  People of color now make up 43% of the population, versus 34% ten years ago.

– The multiracial population (people who identify as being members of two or more racial groups) grew by a staggering 276%, from 9 million in 2010 to 33.8 million in 2020.  The office in charge of conducting and analyzing the results of the U.S. Census — the United States Census Bureau — says that part of the reason for this steep increase is that there have been improvements in the way questions are designed on the surveys, as well as how information is processed.  But while taking this into account, the U.S. Census Bureau does maintain that the racial make-up of the nation is changing rapidly and becoming much more diverse.

– Seven states and territories have populations that are now less than 50% white: California, Hawaii, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Puerto Rico.

– The Asian-American population is the most rapidly growing group in the United States, increasing by 35% since the last census, to 24 million.  The African-American population also grew, but its share of the U.S. population as a whole remained at around 12%.

– Texas and Florida grew in population and will therefore gain seats in Congress.  On the other hand, California and New York, though still two of the biggest states, will lose seats, because their populations declined.  This affects the political landscape since Texas and Florida are Republican strongholds, and California and New York are solidly Democratic.

– With 10 million people, Los Angeles County is still the biggest county in the nation.

– The biggest city is New York, New York, with 8.8 million people.

– California is the most populated state, at 39.5 million.  That’s 12% of the entire U.S. population!  The Golden State’s economy is huge.  In fact, if California would be its own country, it would have the 8th largest economy in the world.

– Wyoming has the smallest population with 576,000 people.

More Facts about the U.S. Census

– Conducting censuses is not unique to the United States.  In ancient times, many cultures were keeping track of their people.  The Chinese, Egyptians, and Romans all counted and gathered data on their citizens.

– The U.S. was the first nation to count all its people – not just a privileged group.  It is also the first to constitutionally mandate a census.

– The first census in the U.S. was conducted in 1790.  Aided by 650 assistants, U.S. Marshals went door-to-door to count the people living in the young nation, often traveling far and wide and into remote and difficult-to-reach areas.  The way in which people were categorized was very different back then.  Residents were either free white males 16 years or older, free white males under 16, free white females, or all other free persons and slaves.

– The 1790 Census also showed that New York was the biggest city in the nation – with 33,131 people.  Philadelphia came in a close second.  New York never lost its top spot.  In 1800, it had 60,000 people, in 1850, 515,000, and in 1900, 3.4 million.  The 2010 Census showed that New York had a population of more than 8.1 million, which exceeded the populations of Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia combined.

– In 1890, counting was done by machine for the first time.

– Less than 100 years later in 1960, a mass mailing of the census survey questionnaire was conducted, and results were processed by computer.

– In 1990, a system for counting homeless people, particularly in urban areas, was put into effect.

– The internet was used to publish census results for the first time in 2000.

– The 2020 results were delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sources: United States Census Bureau, “2020 Census Statistics Highlight Local Population Changes and Nation’s Racial and Ethnic Diversity,” https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2021/population-changes-nations-diversity.html, August 12, 2021; Boschma, Janie; Wolfe, Daniel; Krishnakumar, Priya; Hickey, Christopher; Maharishi, Meghna; Rigdon, Renee; Keefe, John; Wright, David; CNN, “Census release shows America is more diverse and more multiracial than ever,” https://edition.cnn.com/us-census-2020-data/index.html, August 13, 2021; McKelvey, Tara; Debusmann Jr., Bernd, BBC, “US census: Hispanics and Asian-American driving US population growth,” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us, August 12, 2021; BBC, “US Census: Five  key takeaways on population trends,” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-56896154, April 26, 2021; Greenspan, Jesse, History.com, “10 Things You May Not Know About the US Census,” https://www.history.com/news/u-s-census, March 25, 2020.