It All Adds UpA Look Back at the 2020 Census

It all began on a January afternoon, in the remote Alaskan village of Toksook Bay…

After a decade of work, one chapter of the 2020 Census has closed and another has opened.

The responses have been collected. Now comes the careful process of creating statistics—anonymous data that will help shape the next decade for communities across the country.

It was a census unlike any other, with the United States and much of the world facing the COVID-19 pandemic. But thanks to hundreds of thousands of people and partners, we all came together to get the word out and finish the count.

Here’s a look back.

After a decade of work, one chapter of the 2020 Census has closed and another has opened.

The responses have been collected. Now comes the careful process of creating statistics—anonymous data that will help shape the next decade for communities across the country.

It was a census unlike any other, with the United States and much of the world facing the COVID-19 pandemic. But thanks to hundreds of thousands of people and partners, we all came together to get the word out and finish the count.

Here’s a look back.

2020 census official questionnaire form.
Collage of flyers and advertisements encouraging people to apply to become census takers.

Laying the Groundwork

The 2020 Census was not a one-year effort.

The U.S. Census Bureau began preparing for this year's count even before the 2010 Census ended. We made changes to account for lessons learned in 2010. We conducted operational census tests—in cities across the country—in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2018.

Beginning in 2018, we also extensively researched how people perceived the census and what would motivate them to complete it.

Designing the Questions

The 2020 Census asked simple questions about the people living in the United States. As required by the Census Act, the Census Bureau submitted these questions to Congress on March 29, 2018.

Recruiting Census Takers

Counting everyone living in the United States takes a lot of help. The 2020 Census required the American public to work together to shape the country’s future.

To complete the count, we hired half a million employees from communities across the nation, mostly to serve as census takers. These efforts started with the launch of the 2020 Census jobs website in September 2018. The Census Bureau eventually received 3.1 million job applications.

2020 census official questionnaire form.
Collage of flyers and advertisements encouraging people to apply to be a census taker.

Laying the Groundwork

The 2020 Census was not a one-year effort.

The U.S. Census Bureau began preparing for this year's count even before the 2010 Census ended. We made changes to account for lessons learned in 2010. We conducted operational census tests—in cities across the country—in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2018.

Beginning in 2018, we also extensively researched how people perceived the census and what would motivate them to complete it.

Designing the Questions

The 2020 Census asked simple questions about the people living in the United States. As required by the Census Act, the Census Bureau submitted these questions to Congress on March 29, 2018.

Recruiting Census Takers

Counting everyone living in the United States takes a lot of help. The 2020 Census required the American public to work together to shape the country’s future.

To complete the count, we hired half a million employees from communities across the nation, mostly to serve as census takers. These efforts started with the launch of the 2020 Census jobs website in September 2018. The Census Bureau eventually received 3.1 million job applications.

Shaping the Future

The push to educate and motivate people about the 2020 Census represented one of the largest advertising campaigns in U.S. government history.

On March 29, 2019, the Census Bureau launched 2020census.gov—a key information hub about the census, with details on how to complete it and how it will affect communities across the country. Three days later, on Census Day 2019, we held a press conference to share updates on our integrated partnership and communication campaign. The campaign slogan: "Shape Your Future. START HERE."

Through this massive multimedia campaign, the Census Bureau sought to engage stakeholders and partners, support recruitment efforts and the Statistics in Schools program, and communicate the importance of the census through paid advertising, public relations, social media content, and the new web site. The campaign was driven by efforts to reach historically undercounted audiences and was tested by over 120 focus groups across the country.

Making a List, Checking It Twice

Before we could count how many people lived in the United States, we needed to confirm where in the U.S. people lived.

Advances in technology helped revolutionize this work. Starting in 2015, for example, we began using satellite imagery to verify local address lists and identify areas with new homes and apartment buildings.

From August 2019 to October 2019, census workers known as address canvassers went out to verify that the Census Bureau's list of homes was accurate and up to date.

Doing Our Homework

A thousand local students in Memphis, Tennessee, helped kick off the Census Bureau's Statistics in Schools program on October 28, 2019, at the Everyone Counts Fall Festival.

"Today we have a very special mission for you," Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham told the crowd at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. "The mission is to give your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and even your teachers a homework assignment. Who wants to give your teachers homework?"

Who wants to give your teachers homework?
Steven Dillingham, Census Bureau Director

That homework: Complete the 2020 Census.

The festival featured interactive games and challenges based on new classroom activities that emphasized the importance of census data. And four months later, in early March, students around the country took a virtual field trip to the Census Bureau during Statistics in Schools Week.

Shaping the Future

The push to educate and motivate people about the 2020 Census represented one of the largest advertising campaigns in U.S. government history.

On March 29, 2019, the Census Bureau launched 2020census.gov—a key information hub about the census, with details on how to complete it and how it will affect communities across the country. Three days later, on Census Day 2019, we held a press conference to share updates on our integrated partnership and communication campaign. The campaign slogan: "Shape Your Future. START HERE."

Through this massive multimedia campaign, the Census Bureau sought to engage stakeholders and partners, support recruitment efforts and the Statistics in Schools program, and communicate the importance of the census through paid advertising, public relations, social media content, and the new web site. The campaign was driven by efforts to reach historically undercounted audiences and was tested by over 120 focus groups across the country.

Making a List, Checking It Twice

Before we could count how many people lived in the United States, we needed to confirm where in the U.S. people lived.

Advances in technology helped revolutionize this work. Starting in 2015, for example, we began using satellite imagery to verify local address lists and identify areas with new homes and apartment buildings.

From August 2019 to October 2019, census workers known as address canvassers went out to verify that the Census Bureau's list of homes was accurate and up to date.

Doing Our Homework

A thousand local students in Memphis, Tennessee, helped kick off the Census Bureau's Statistics in Schools program on October 28, 2019, at the Everyone Counts Fall Festival.

"Today we have a very special mission for you," Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham told the crowd at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. "The mission is to give your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and even your teachers a homework assignment. Who wants to give your teachers homework?"

Who wants to give your teachers homework?
Steven Dillingham, Census Bureau Director

That homework: Complete the 2020 Census.

The festival featured interactive games and challenges based on new classroom activities that emphasized the importance of census data. And four months later, in early March, students around the country took a virtual field trip to the Census Bureau during Statistics in Schools Week.

Hitting the Airwaves

On January 14, we unveiled highlights of a more than $500 million public education and outreach campaign.

That same day, we began airing the first ads of the campaign, which was designed to ultimately reach 99% of the nation's 140 million homes, including historically undercounted and hard-to-reach audiences.

Multiple Census Advertisements in English and other languages.
Multiple Census Advertisements in English and other languages.
Multiple Census Advertisements in English and other languages.

More than 1,000 advertisements, in English and 46 other languages, communicated the importance of responding to the 2020 Census.

The campaign was designed to reach nearly all U.S. residents an average of 40 times throughout the campaign, through television, radio, newspaper, and online ads as well as outdoor ads such as those on billboards and at bus stops.

Kicking Off the Count

The 2020 count officially began on Tuesday, January 21, in Toksook Bay, Alaska.

The Census Bureau traditionally begins the count in Alaska to ensure that remote villages are accurately counted. Travel may be treacherous in the spring months, as thawing ice makes it difficult to land planes and navigate boats. The early start also helps the Census Bureau reach villagers before they leave to go hunting and fishing in the spring.

Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham arrives in Toksook Bay, Alaska, to officially kick off the 2020 count.

Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham arrives in Toksook Bay, Alaska, to officially kick off the 2020 count.

Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham arrives in Toksook Bay, Alaska, to officially kick off the 2020 count.

Counting Young Children

One priority for the 2020 Census was ensuring that children, and young children in particular, were not overlooked in the count.

We spent years researching the groups of children that were missed in the 2010 Census and identifying steps to more accurately count children in 2020. We reworked the language on one question to more explicitly remind people to count grandchildren in the home, as well as children who were both related and unrelated to the person responding.

In late February 2020, the Census Bureau partnered with the Federation of Pediatric Organizations to promote the importance of counting young children and held a free event at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland.

Kicking Off the Count

The 2020 count officially began on Tuesday, January 21, in Toksook Bay, Alaska.

The Census Bureau traditionally begins the count in Alaska to ensure that remote villages are accurately counted. Travel may be treacherous in the spring months, as thawing ice makes it difficult to land planes and navigate boats. The early start also helps the Census Bureau reach villagers before they leave to go hunting and fishing in the spring.

Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham arrives in Toksook Bay, Alaska, to officially kick off the 2020 count.

Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham arrives in Toksook Bay, Alaska, to officially kick off the 2020 count.

Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham arrives in Toksook Bay, Alaska, to officially kick off the 2020 count.


Counting Young Children

One priority for the 2020 Census was ensuring that children, and young children in particular, were not overlooked in the count.

We spent years researching the groups of children that were missed in the 2010 Census and identifying steps to more accurately count children in 2020. We reworked the language on one question to more explicitly remind people to count grandchildren in the home, as well as children who were both related and unrelated to the person responding.

In late February 2020, the Census Bureau partnered with the Federation of Pediatric Organizations to promote the importance of counting young children and held a free event at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland.

Making History

Beginning March 12, 2020, the public was invited to respond to the census at my2020census.gov. The 2020 Census was the first U.S. census to invite people to respond online.

Responding to the Crisis

Just as the census was launched online, much of the country began to hunker down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the weeks and months that followed, the Census Bureau took steps to ensure the health and safety of the public and census workers. That included suspending field operations in mid-March before launching a phased restart in May, as some states began to reopen.

As census takers returned to neighborhoods, they were required to wear masks, maintain social distancing, and follow other local guidelines.

We quickly adjusted our messaging, pivoting from our original campaign—years in the making—to encourage people to respond online from the safety of their own homes.

Partners played a vital role and found creative new ways to drive responses to the 2020 Census: attaching stickers to carryout food containers, printing messages on grocery receipts, ramping up social media efforts, and engaging people near curbside library pickups, in line for food donations, and elsewhere.

Responding to the Crisis

Just as the census was launched online, much of the country began to hunker down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the weeks and months that followed, the Census Bureau took steps to ensure the health and safety of the public and census workers. That included suspending field operations in mid-March before launching a phased restart in May, as some states began to reopen.

As census takers returned to neighborhoods, they were required to wear masks, maintain social distancing, and follow other local guidelines.

We quickly adjusted our messaging, pivoting from our original campaign—years in the making—to encourage people to respond online from the safety of their own homes.

Partners played a vital role and found creative new ways to drive responses to the 2020 Census: attaching stickers to carryout food containers, printing messages on grocery receipts, ramping up social media efforts, and engaging people near curbside library pickups, in line for food donations, and elsewhere.

Less than two weeks after the 2020 Census was launched online, 25% of homes across the U.S. had responded to the census.

Celebrating Census Day

April 1 was a key reference date: When completing their census, people counted where they were living and everyone who was living in their home as of this day.

With much of the country staying home because of the pandemic, we marked the occasion with a surge of outreach, virtual events, and advertising.

Collage of census advertisements.

Mailing Out Questionnaires

More than half of all homes in the U.S. responded to the census online, but that wasn't the only option available. People could also choose to respond by phone or by mail.

On April 8, the Census Bureau began sending questionnaires to homes that had not yet completed the census online. Some homes, particularly those in areas with low internet access, received their paper questionnaires even earlier.

Halfway there!

By April 18, half of all homes in the U.S. had responded to the census.

Reaching the Island Areas and Puerto Rico

On May 22, following a two-month delay to ensure health and safety during the pandemic, the Census Bureau resumed counting the approximately 1.7 million households in Puerto Rico.

In coordination with local governments, the 2020 Census also extended the timeline to count the populations in American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Following Up With Homes

Throughout the year, we focused on protecting the health and safety of census workers and the public.

In response to COVID-19, the Census Bureau delayed efforts to follow up in person with homes that had not yet responded online, by phone, or by mail. In July, as local guidelines allowed, census takers began visiting homes to continue the count.

As the summer wore on, we also adjusted our communications strategy, reaching people by email and phone to encourage them to respond.

Reaching the Island Areas and Puerto Rico

On May 22, following a two-month delay to ensure health and safety during the pandemic, the Census Bureau resumed counting the approximately 1.7 million households in Puerto Rico.

In coordination with local governments, the 2020 Census also extended the timeline to count the populations in American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.


Following Up With Homes

Throughout the year, we focused on protecting the health and safety of census workers and the public.

In response to COVID-19, the Census Bureau delayed efforts to follow up in person with homes that had not yet responded online, by phone, or by mail. In July, as local guidelines allowed, census takers began visiting homes to continue the count.

As the summer wore on, we also adjusted our communications strategy, reaching people by email and phone to encourage them to respond.

On August 22, the Census Bureau reached another milestone, with 75% of homes having completed the census on their own or with the help of a census taker.

Ensuring That Everyone Is Counted

September was a key month for ensuring a complete and accurate count.

Throughout the month, census takers counted people at transitory locations such as campgrounds, RV parks, marinas, and hotels.

People experiencing homelessness were also counted, with three days dedicated to counting those staying in shelters, those accessing soup kitchens and mobile food vans, and those living in nonsheltered, outdoor locations.

On October 15, 269 days after the 2020 Census launched in remote Alaska, the response period came to an end.

Processing the Results

Over the next few months, Census Bureau statisticians and data quality experts are making sure the hundreds of millions of people counted in the 2020 Census are counted once, only once, and in the right place.

Delivering the Data

The Secretary of Commerce will deliver the final apportionment population counts to the President of the United States and the public as close to December 31 as possible. The President will then deliver them to Congress.

The final counts reveal each state's population, which determines its number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2021, we will deliver the local counts that each state needs for legislative redistricting.

Although the count has concluded, the story of the numbers is just beginning.

Data from the 2020 Census will impact communities across the country for the next 10 years—from hospitals, to fire departments, to schools, roads, and highways.

Be one of the first to know the results by subscribing to text or email updates from the Census Bureau.