History of the Undercount in the Census

On March 1st, 1790, the Census Act passed by President George Washington, Vice President John Adams and Speaker of the House, Fredrick Muhlenberg. The Enumeration began in 1790 counting the 13th original states including districts of Kentucky, Maine, Vermont and Tennessee (SW Territory). The Census was estimated to be finished in nine calendar months and counted “Free white Males of 16 years and older, free white males under 16, free white females, all other free persons and slaves.” Males 16 years and older were counted for industrial and military potential.

The first Census’ data was not accurate enough for the President at the time but the government encouraged the Census to continue anyway. In 1800, they divided the age groups by free white women and men from 10 but under 15, 16 but under 25, 25 and under 45 and 45 years or older. They counted the people of color—Indians, slaves, free blacks—but did not categorize them into age groups.

Throughout the next 10, 20, and 30 years, the data gathered was still not accurate enough, so the questions would change from asking about businesses and industrial activities to just counting the population, and then other years Census-makers would add on more questions. In the 1960s, the first mailed-out census questionnaires to households were delivered. As the years went by, certain groups were still undercounted.

To this day, Hard to Count (HTC) areas are undercounted. From individuals to businesses, all-White to broadly diverse, men as head of household to any gender head of household, English languages to mother-tongue, and more, HTC areas are consistently undercounted, and undercounted populations in those areas are doubly undercounted. The Census has gone through many changes every ten years, getting better but also getting worse. Many areas are still considered Hard to Count areas because of the diverse geographical lands and the diverse groups of people. According to the US Census Bureau, the 2010 Census undercounted HTC areas by 8%, and most of the data the Census bureau releases does not even consider Remote Alaska, because it is so hard to count.

The strategies of population counts are different in each state - and Alaska even more so. The Census 2020 is being done by internet in the other 49 states, and Alaska is using invitation and enumerator strategies because of the lack of internet, mail boxes, and the HTC areas. Alaska has HTC areas because of the amount of untouched geography, sparse villages, and the spring and summer hunting and gathering activities that go on in all regions of Alaska.

If you want to learn more about how to be counted, you can visit alaskacounts.org. And if you want to make sure your community is counted, you can apply for a paid Census enumeration job!