The census is a count of every person living in the United States every 10 years. It is mandated by the US Constitution in Article I, Section 2.
This was one of the shortest censuses in history, comprised of only 10 questions. It included questions about the number of people living in the household, their sex, age, Hispanic origin and race. There was no "long form" as part of the 2010 census. The long form has been replaced by the ongoing American Community Survey (ACS) which is sent separately from the decennial census to a much smaller portion of the population.
The first data released from the 2010 Census were the official national and state population counts. As mandated by the Constitution, these apportionment data were delivered to the President of the United States before the end of 2010.
Data for smaller areas (counties, cities, towns, census tracts and block groups) in the Baltimore region was released in February 2011.
The primary reason that the decennial census is conducted is for apportionment of the House of Representatives. Apportionment is the process of dividing the 435 seats in the US House of Representatives among the 50 states. Redistricting at the state and local level is also done based on the location of people counted in the decennial census.
Another reason is that more than $400 billion in federal funding is distributed annually, based the on the population count. Federal programs such as those administered by the Department of Health & Human Services and the Department of Transportation determine how much and where money needs to be allocated based on how many people live in a specific area. Local governments work hard to ensure as complete a count as possible so that they receive their fair share of federal dollars.
Additionally, characteristics of the population (such as race, ethnicity, number of people per household and location of households) are compiled from the decennial census and trends over time (such as the shift of households from urban to suburban) can be analyzed.
Privacy and Confidentiality
Title 13 of the United States Code protects the confidentiality of individual information entered on census forms. It imposes a fine of up to up to $250,000 and/or five years imprisonment, if confidentiality is breached. It also prevents any individual or agency from having access to any information that will tie the respondent to his or her responses on the census form. The information is not available through the Freedom of Information Act, nor can it be retrieved through a court order for law enforcement purposes.
Title 44 of the U.S. Code does allow names to be released after a period of 72 years, or the average person's lifespan. People doing historical genealogical research often depend on this data. Currently, names from the 1790 census up to the 1930 census are available. Data from the 1940 census will be released in 2012.
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