Census data are numerical facts collected by the government on a regular basis relating to population, geographic trends, and the economy. Census data are used in a multitude of different ways. While the decennial population count is by far the biggest census that the U.S. Bureau of the Census undertakes, it also does thousands of other censuses—some annually, others monthly—to track changes in American society. This data is used to allocate government resources and determine regional representation in the U.S. Congress. The U.S. Economic Survey, another type of census which comes out every five years, is particularly helpful to small business owners. This data can help entrepreneurs evaluate business opportunities, consumer preferences, and competitive strategies, as well as locate the best geographic sites for new businesses.

The original mandate to perform a national population census every ten years is contained in the U.S. Constitution. In 1880, Congress streamlined the census process by establishing a separate Census Office in the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Census Bureau has been compiling ever greater numbers of censuses since it was first established. Every conceivable aspect of business, industry, and commerce is documented either monthly, annually, biannually, or quinquennially in the form of census surveys and polls, averaging 2,000 per year. Some of the census data are published in the form of one-or two-page reports; others are compiled annually into the Statistical Abstract of the United States . A recent innovation has been the Census Bureau's geographic database, TIGER (Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing), which provides a block-by-block population survey of the United States, including every bridge, stream, road, and tunnel. TIGER is available on CD-ROM as well as on the Internet, and many local libraries make it available to the general public.

In short, billions of facts are churned out by the Census Bureau annually. Approximately 40,000 different federal, state, and local government agencies and business entities rely on these facts. The decennial population census guides the reapportionment of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as in state, county, and municipal legislatures. Major cities also are vitally interested in the census data, since the population figures determine the amount of federal aid they receive. The census data also detail the amount of spending by state and local governments.


Virtually every business, industry, and service uses (or could benefit from using) census data. Entrepreneurs and self-employed persons often turn to the Census Bureau's popular publication Taking Care of Business: A Guide to Census Bureau Data for Small Businesses, which provides helpful guidelance on understanding census statistics. In addition, many businesses and manufacturers rely heavily on the five year U.S. Economic Survey, which is compiled from the results of questionnaires sent to 3.5 million companies. This data can help small business owners evaluate business opportunities, consumer preferences, market share, and competitive strategies, as well as enable them to locate the best geographic sites for new business and distribution routes for their products. It can also provide strong clues as to how to advertise products or target direct mail more effectively. The Economic Survey has become so detailed and complex in recent years that the Census Bureau issues a special reference book to guide the researcher through the data. But this information is also available in a number of other forms. For example, the Census Bureau cooperates with the U.S. Small Business Administration to provide statistics for a range of publications and helps organize business seminars and workshops throughout the country. In addition, numerous private research firms offer their own census data "packages," complete with a user-friendly electronic format and their own projections. Many newspapers and magazines also cite social or economic data from current Census Bureau surveys.

Despite the utility and profit derived from using or marketing census data, there have nearly always been controversies surrounding the Census Bureau and the data it gives out. Because census data are vital in determining the amount of federal aid to cities, the Census Bureau has faced dozens of lawsuits alleging undercounting of minorities. The matter of privacy has also continually perplexed census efforts. While the pressure on the Bureau to provide increasingly detailed information has increased over the years, so has resistance to the "prying" nature of census questionnaires on the part of the public—from businesses to private individuals. Although the Bureau has been mandated to keep all of its information confidential since 1929, the computerization of government records has cast public doubt on the "leakproof" nature of census information. Finally, the demands for more diversified data have sizably increased the budget of the Census Bureau. This has led the bureau to consider scaling back some of its survey activities, but private sector entities (universities, research firms) will likely fill any significant gap that appears, given continued high demand for such data.


Andelman, David A. "Counting Up Americans." Management Review. December 1998.

Anderson, Margo. The American Census: A Social History. Yale University Press, 1988.

Myers, Dowell. Analysis with Local Census Data: Portraits of Change. Academic Press, 1992.

Pettersson, Edvard. "Census Data Shed New Light on Economy." Los Angeles Business Journal. September 20, 1999.

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