Kristin Stanberry

As I write this article, the US Census Bureau has just completed the 2020 Census, which is quite an accomplishment during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the Bureau was gearing up to mail Census questionnaires to all known households in the country on 1 April when, in mid-March, many states and counties went into lockdown in response to the COVID-19 virus.

The Census questionnaires were mailed out as planned, but the ongoing pandemic conditions created significant challenges in Census operations. Even so, the Census Bureau managed to collect responses from almost 100% of American households. While headlines have focused on the challenges and controversies surrounding the 2020 Census, the purpose of the Census in American life deserves equal attention.

The US Decennial Census
The United States does not have a national population register as defined by Sanjay Dharwadker in his article, The importance of National Population Registers. But the US does have several ways of counting the population and issuing personal identity documents for various purposes. The Decennial Census is the primary method for capturing the total number of people living in the country.

The US federal government has counted its population by conducting a census every 10 years since 1790. The Census is a critical tool for determining:

  • How many seats in the US Congress will be allocated to each state and territory.
  • Each state’s number of votes in the Electoral College, and thus its power to decide presidential elections.
  • How federal funding will be allocated among states and local communities for critical programmes and services. These include health clinics, disaster recovery initiatives, infrastructure (such as highways), public safety (police and firefighters), and school lunch programmes.

All of these factors will apply to the following decade, so an accurate count is essential to the appropriate distribution of funding and political power.

The Census is designed to determine the number of people living in the United States, as well as the distribution of the population among specific states and counties. Before we delve further into the details of the Census, let’s take a look at some of the other ways Americans are counted and identified.

us census

US personal identification documents
The United States identifies and tracks individual citizens primarily by issuing the following personal identification documents:

  • Social Security Number: The use of the Social Security Number (SSN) has expanded significantly since its inception in 1936. Created primarily to keep track of the earnings history of US workers for Social Security entitlement and benefit computation purposes, it has come to be used as a nearly universal identifier. Assigned at birth, the SSN enables other government agencies to identify individuals in their records and private industry to track an individual’s financial information. Of course, many illegal and homeless residents are not issued Social Security Cards/Numbers. The Social Security Administration’s SSN master file is generally known as the Numident. Depending when an individual’s Social Security Card was issued, the document may contain certain security features. It does not include a photo of the holder.
  • Driver’s licence/ID card: Driver’s licences and identification cards are usually issued by state agencies. State-issued driving and ID credentials were never intended to serve as a primary form of federal identification but has become the de facto form of ID for most Americans. With the implementation of the REAL ID Act, driver’s licences and ID cards are carefully vetted to prove the identity of the holder. Many Americans and state legislative bodies were reluctant to adopt the REAL ID Act out of fear that it would be used to create a “national identity database.” These credentials contain both security features and a photo of the holder. The federal government issues other personal credentials such as US Military ID cards, and State Department driver’s licences and ID cards.
  • Passport: The US issues passport booklets and cards to its citizens who wish to travel outside out of, and back into, the country. The identity of every applicant is carefully verified by the US Department of State. Each passport contains a photo of the holder and security features so that it can be authenticated as a genuine document.

Part 2 of our series expands on exactly who is counted in the US Census.


Kristin Stanberry is an editor for Keesing Technologies. Her areas of expertise are secure ID documents, education, insurance and health. She gathers her knowledge from multiple sources all over the world, including personal contacts with leading experts and agencies. Kristin lives in California and has over 20 years of experience publishing award-winning print and online content.

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