The importance of the Census long-form

The importance of the Census long-form The following article is taken in part from an article released by the Pennsylvania State Data Center.

Although the official Census Day, April 1, 2000, has come and gone, there continues to be discussion on the value of the Decennial Census Long Form. Some individuals are reluctant to answer the long form because of the nature of the questions. This article provides some background on the questions included on the census and how this data is used.


The decennial census determines the number of seats each state has in the House of Representatives. The information gathered from the census is used to implement legislation, assist in decision-making in both industry and government and to help understand changes taking place in our society. Census data also helps determine the distribution of over $200 billion in federal funds. All individual answers remain confidential for 72 years. Only summary data is released.

Who decided what questions should be on the census forms?

It is important to note that every question on the census form is tied to legislation passed by the U.S. Congress at some point in time. More than 120 federal programs use census data in funding formulas (i.e., WIC, Unemployment Insurance, Head Start, Medicaid, etc.)

In 1992, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) asked federal agencies to provide justification for their content requirements for the 2000 Census. This research and documentation resulted in the shortest census in 180 years. Each question on the decennial census form has specific federal legislative justification. That is, federal law or case law criteria by the U.S. Federal Court System requires this data.

Three years before Census Day (in 1997), the U.S. Bureau of the Census was required to submit to Congress the subjects that were to be covered on the decennial census forms. The actual questions to appear on the census forms were submitted to Congress two years before Census Day.

Why are there two Forms?

As in previous censuses, there are two different forms: the "long form" and the "short form." About five of every six households will receive a "short form" containing about seven subjects: name, age, gender, relationship, race, Hispanic origin and housing tenure. It takes approximately 10 minutes to complete. These questions relate to the Voting Rights Act and are used in reapportionment and redistricting. The short form is also referred to as the 100 percent count, as everyone is asked to answer these questions.

The remainder, one of six households, will receive the "long form" which asks about 34 subjects: those mentioned above along with questions on education, ancestry, income, employment, transportation, disability, caregivers, and housing characteristics. This form takes about 38 minutes to complete. This information is referred to as sample data.

Why answer the census?

The decennial census is the only uniform measure of population, socio-economic and housing data in the nation. It is used by many including:

* Businesses � From the large corporation considering opening a new facility in a specific neighborhood to someone wanting to start his or her own business, both need census data to help make their decisions. Census data tells them if an area can supply the customers or clients they need for their product or service. It tells them if the area can supply the work force needed. There are many demographic characteristics to review, such as population by age and possibly by gender or ethnicity, income levels, commuter patterns, educational attainment, occupations, etc.

Chambers of Commerce, Economic Development Organizations and other organizations that assist businesses rely on this demographic data to draw businesses to an area.

* Non Profit Organizations � Census data helps identify where facilities are best located whether it be clinics, shelters, or senior centers. Are after-school programs needed in a specific area? Census data helps identify the number of children and number of working parents with children in a specific area.

* Planners � Planners look at demographic, social, economic, and housing trends over time to determine changes and their impact. This data helps in planning and preparing for the future. This would include whether new schools are needed, land use, parks and recreation areas, public services, roads, traffic lights, etc. Virtually every census data item is of use. Planners cannot prepare for the future, without looking at today and comparing it to the past.

* Government � All levels of government � national, state and local � use census data in the formulation, administration and evaluation of public policy. The PA Emergency Management Agency has census data by latitude and longitude for emergency planning. They need to know where the population is located in case of floods, tornados and other emergency planning.

Local government use census data as well. It is needed to determine if schools have sufficient space or if the tax-base is shifting. Does this community have a concentration of a population that needs some consideration, i.e., high elderly population, high number of persons speaking foreign languages?

* Researchers � The census is the only complete snapshot in time. It is how we measure ourselves to see how we have changed. Only the census can provide the scientific objective measurement of changes in an area such as an increase in single-parent families, women in the work force, and grandparents as caregivers. Census data is a big part of academic research.

It is easy to see the many valuable ways that census data is used � it affects us all in representation in government at the national, state and local levels. It affects us in the dollars distributed by the federal and state government and, very importantly, in decisions made by businesses, communities, non-profits, and government. It is worth expending the effort to get the most accurate and complete count possible.

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