The first census in the history of the United States was conducted in 1790, just a year after the inauguration of President George Washington. The census was one of the first tasks Congress instructed the newly formed government to do, complying with Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. Article 1, Section 2 requires the federal government to conduct an official and complete count of the U.S. population every 10 years. Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, ensured that the marshals of the judicial districts conducted the census in all the original 13 States, as well as the districts of Kentucky, Maine, Vermont, and the Southwest Territory (Tennessee). The 1790 census act required enumerators to visit every household. Every single person needed to be counted, including the different enumeration categories: free white males older than 16 years of age, free males under the age of 16, free females, all other free persons, and slaves.
Much like it is used today, the results of the 1790 census were used to apportion congressional seats and funding for government programs. Unfortunately, skepticism, social believes, and inexperienced enumerators caused an inaccurate count of the population. Slaves, for example, counted as only three-fifths of a person, and Native Americans were not yet included in the census. The territory of the United States has drastically changed since the 1790 census, as has our social structure. While the purpose of the census remains the same, usage for census data has grown. Today an accurate count of our population not only determines how many seats each state gets in the House of Representatives, but it helps redraw congressional and state legislative districts. Furthermore, population totals determine the distribution of more than $675 billion in federal funding to state and local governments over the next 10 years. An accurate count will ensure programs like Medicaid, SNAP, public libraries and school lunches are properly funded. Census data is often used to plan for infrastructure projects and services, such as hospitals, schools, construction and maintenance of roads and public safety.
America’s founding fathers understood the importance of the census. As dictated by our constitution, it is our civic responsibility to participate. Census results will affect our country for the next decade. A complete and accurate count of our population will shape the future and well-being of our communities.
Blanca Soto is the southwest Kansas campaign director for the Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and a member of the Kansas Complete Count Committee.