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Why do governments take a census?

A census is the gathering of information about all the people in a particular country or region. Taking censuses is an old tradition. For example, in ancient Rome, the government would periodically count all the citizens and evaluate their property in order to see how much tax a person should pay.

In modern times, many countries conduct regular censuses, usually every five or ten years. In the United States, the Constitution (in Article 1, Section 2) mandates that a census be taken every 10 years in order to decide how many representatives should be elected from each state. (The House of Representatives has a total of 435 representatives, which are elected every two years.) The law that governs the taking of the census is contained in Title 13 of the U.S. Code.

Every ten years, April 1 is designated as Census Day. The U.S. Census Bureau, part of the Department of Commerce, prepares long in advance so as to capture as accurate a picture as possible of the entire population on that particular day. At the same time the population is counted, many, many other details are collected as well.

This information is used for many purposes. First, it is used to allocate elected seats, not only in the House of Representatives, but in the state legislatures. In addition, all levels of government — federal, state, local and tribal — use census data as a guide for spending money on many different programs and services. At the federal level alone, the spending of well over $100 billion a year depends on census data.

Outside the government, community organizations use census information to help them develop social programs, while businesses use it to decide where to build various facilities, such as factories and shopping malls.

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