Please, go do your census

Census collage 3 96ppi

The U.S. Census Bureau has mailed multiple reminders to respond to the 2020 census.  (Photo illustration by JenGenX)

One of the cheesy jokes in the genealogy world goes something like this: “Eventually, all genealogists come to their census.” You can find it on memes, T-shirts, coffee mugs, key chains, you get the idea.

A long wait

Taken quite literally, however, I won’t come to my census for quite some time. After all, it’ll be 72 years from my first enumeration in a census before it becomes a publicly accessible record.1 I’ll be almost 81 years old when the release of the 1980 census rolls around in the year 2052. With any luck, I’ll still be around to see my own entry.

Anyone researching yours truly will be able to learn my address, gender, race and whether I am of Hispanic descent, the highest grade of school I had attended, and something of utmost importance to future genealogists: who I lived with at the time and our relationships to one another.2 If the household in which I lived was selected to complete a long form survey instead of the short form, there would be a slew of additional and more interesting facts about us.

This hypothetical researcher 32 years from now also will be able to glean from the 1980 census housing questions whether my family rented or owned, entered our abode via an exterior door or an interior entry way, and had indoor plumbing and a flushable toilet.I suppose this might be of some interest, in the same way I am intrigued by the column in the 1930 census that reveals whether a household had a radio set. (Some of my great-grandparents did, but some did not.)

Decennial documentation

Genealogists count censuses among their first go-to records when researching ancestors and recreating families. These snapshots every ten years enable us to scaffold their lives and provide clues to help us fill in the intervening time. Where did they live? Where did they live five years earlier? How long had they been married? What kind of work did they do? I’m sure I’m not alone in having solved a little family mystery thanks to the 1900 and 1910 census questions asking women how many children they’d had and how many were still living.

So I felt a great responsibility when I sat down on 1 April 2020 to make sure everyone living in my home was accurately counted and described because the census provides a rare opportunity to leave breadcrumbs for posterity, not to mention the chance to impact the distribution of political and social benefits for millions of Americans.

Having full participation in the census is vitally important because the results will be used to apportion and draw boundaries for political districts for Congress, the state legislature, and other local jurisdictions with elected representation. The data also drives government spending on everything from human services to infrastructure. Your favorite chain restaurant may use it to determine whether to open a new location near you.

state-default-squareAs of Wednesday, the most recent date for which information is available, the national self-response rate was only 51.8 percent.4 If you haven’t responded yet, you still have plenty of time to do it on your own before a census worker comes knocking on your door. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the deadline has been extended to Oct. 31.5 Since most of us are living in a state of semi-quarantine right now, why not take a little time to make sure your household is included? If you don’t have your mailings handy, you can respond online or by phone.6


Simply disappointing

I had followed the news enough to know that, after much controversy, the government wasn’t going to be inquiring about my immigration and/or citizenship status, or that of anyone in my household. But beyond that, I’ll confess, I didn’t know what to expect on this year’s questionnaire.

From a genealogical perspective, it felt like a big let-down.

In a nutshell, the census asked who lives in my home, whether we rent or own (and whether we have a mortgage), gender, race and ethnic origins. When it came to relationships among the members of the household, the online form offered inadequate choices for our living situation, offering four different ways of identifying my life partner but forcing me to categorize my nieces as “other relatives.” In a digital world, the inability to allow me to be more specific about a very common and close relationship is mind-boggling and disappointing.

There are no questions about our occupations or even the industries in which we work. Marital status is only addressed in relation to the person filling out the form. The census doesn’t even ask whether other adults in the home are single, married, divorced, or widowed. Future genealogists will still have plenty of digging to do.

The only customizable fill-in-the-blank is for race, where I could select White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander and then elaborate on those origins. At last, an opportunity to drop some breadcrumbs! At least our DNA test results came in handy!

Reality check

Don’t let my bellyaching dissuade you. What governmental entities use the data for over the next decade or so is far more important. So please, go do your census!

Ultimately, I realize, how genealogists will use the personal data from this year’s census in the year 2092 doesn’t affect me. But 70 years ago, our great-grandparents, grandparents, and/or parents (depending on your age and family) completed the 1950 census and that information will be released less than two years from now. Now that’s something I can look forward to!

Have you filled out your census yet?

#genealogy #census #shapeyourfuture


1. “The ’72-Year Rule’,” United States Census Bureau ( : accessed 13 April 2020).

2. “1980 (Population),” Index of Questions, U.S. Census Bureau ( : accessed 13 April 2020).

3. “1980 (Housing),” Index of Questions, U.S. Census Bureau ( : accessed 13 April 2020).

4. “2020 Census Self-Response Rates,” U.S. Census Bureau ( : accessed 23 April 2020).

5. “U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and U.S. Census Bureau Director Stephen Dillingham Statement on 2020 Census Operational Adjustments Due to COVID-19,” released 13 April 2020, ( : accessed 22 April 2020).

6. “How To Respond,” U.S. Census Bureau, ( : accessed 24 April 2020).

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