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Social Work: Census Research

An Introduction to the Census

What is the  Census?

A census is a count of all persons in a given geographic area. Article 1, Section 2, of the United States Constitution, mandates that the United States Census Bureau conducts a nationwide census every 10 years. The data from the counts is used by a variety of different government and private entities. Most notably, the data is used to determine the number of seats each state has in the House of  Representatives and to guide the distribution of federal funds to local communities.

Why use Census Data?

Census data is a valuable research tool to understand the social and economic make-up of a community. Census data is a key aspect of grant writing and funding applications. It also is a key aspect of public service professions including, social workers, politicians, historians, and more

What Limitations Does Census Data Have?

The census is designed to count all people living in the United States at the time of the census. It is the closest we have to complete demographic and economic data on the U.S. population. However, it is important to note that some segments of the population are usually over-or-under-counted for a variety of reasons, including fear of deportation, less focus on minority communities, or human error.

How to Search Census Data using Census Data Explorer

Key Terms

All definitions from the U.S. Census Bureau Glossary.

  • American Community Survey - A monthly sample household survey conducted by the Census Bureau to obtain information similar to the long-form census questionnaire. It was first tested in 1995, and replaced the long form for the 2010 Census.The nationwide survey provides annual data for social and economic characteristics for many geographic entities and population groups.
  • Census Block - a statistical area bounded by visible features, such as streets, roads, streams, and railroad tracks, and by nonvisible boundaries such as selected property lines, city, township, school districts, and county boundaries. 
  • Census Tract - a small relatively permanent statistical subdivision of a county delineated by a local committee of census data users for the purpose of presenting data.
  • Mean - the arithmetic average of a set of numbers
  • Median - the middle value in a set of numbers
  • Redistricting - the process of revising the geographic boundaries of areas from which people elect representatives to the U.S. Congress, a state legislature, a county or city council, a school board, and the like to meet the legal requirement that such areas be as equal in population as possible following a census.
  • Sampling Error - An error that occurs because only part of the population is contacted directly. As with any sample, differences are likely to exist between the characteristics of the sampled population and the larger group from which the sample was chosen. Sampling error, unlike nonsampling error, is measurable.