Brief History: The U.S. Census

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Census files in Suitland, Md., circa 1949. Computers were first used to help process the data in 1951.

It's that time of decade again. On Jan. 25, U.S. census workers began knocking on doors in Noorvik, Alaska, the first stop in an epic attempt to count everyone in America. Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution calls for an "actual Enumeration" of the population every 10 years in order to determine how many Representatives each state gets in the House. The survey has also collected data on occupations, education and housing, among other subjects. The first Census, in 1790, was mainly a head count of free, white, draft-eligible men. Later queries were sometimes absurdly specific: in 1850, data...

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