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The 2020 census

The Legal Genealogist has been among the many many United States citizens who began receiving the envelopes from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“This is your invitation to respond to the 2020 Census,” it begins. And there’s no chance we won’t all respond eagerly to that invitation — there’s not a whole lot that’s dearer to a genealogist’s heart than the census.

Except for one minor fact.

Genealogically speaking, for those looking at this census when it’s opened to researchers in 2092 and in the years, decades and even centuries that follow, it’s pretty much gonna be a bust.

Now before I go on… there is one essential truth we all have to accept, however unhappily.

The census, dear friends, is not designed for us.

There isn’t even one tiny smidgin of intent or purpose to produce a record for genealogical research anywhere in the history or laws surrounding the census.

Its purpose comes directly from the Constitution of the United States:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, … The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.1

That’s it. Since there aren’t any direct taxes within the meaning of the Constitution levied today, the singular purpose of the enumeration clause is to apportion the now-435 seats in the House of Representatives among the states.

You don’t see reconstructing families mentioned anywhere. No linking parent to child or spouses in the language. There’s nothing at all that says occupations or immigration status or — indeed — any demographic information whatsoever other than sheer numbers has to be collected.


It’s true that, on occasion, the law implementing that provision has required some demographic data. The very first census law in 1790 required “That the marshals of the several districts of the United States shall be, and they are hereby authorized and required to cause the number of the inhabitants within their respective-districts to be taken; omitting in such enumeration Indians not taxed, and distinguishing free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, from all others; distinguishing also the sexes and colours of free persons, and the free males of sixteen years and upwards from those under that age…”2

And it’s even true that, on occasion, the amount of demographic information collected by the enumerators has been just wonderful. The 1920 census, for example, collected information on citizenship, education, nativity and mother tongue, occupation and more.3

So… what will those in the future find out about us, when the 2020 census is opened in 72 years?

Not much… but some things we’d like for them to know:

• The names of all household members living at an address as of 1 April 2020, the enumeration date of the census.

• The relationship of each household member to the head of the household, with options including opposite-sex husband/wife/spouse; opposite-sex unmarried partner; same-sex husband/wife/spouse; same-sex unmarried partner; biological son or daughter adopted son or daughter; stepson or stepdaughter; brother or sister; father or mother; grandchild; parent-in-law; son-in-law or daughter-in-law; other relative; roommate or housemate; foster child; and other nonrelative.

• The sex of each household member.

• Each person’s date of birth.

• Whether any person is of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin and, if so, to specify.

• Each person’s race and origins. For example, if white, we’re asked to specify German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese, Egyptian, etc. If Black or African American, African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Somali, etc. If American Indian or Alaska Native, name of enrolled or principal tribe(s), for example, Navajo Nation, Blackfeet Tribe, Mayan, Aztec, Native Village of Barrow Inupiat Traditional Government, Nome Eskimo Community, etc.4

• Whether the person usually lives at the location or stays somewhere else, such as at college, in the military, in a nursing home, in a prison, etc.

And that’s it.

No place of birth. No parents’ place of birth. No occupation. No marital status, except by inference. (But was that single female head of household a widow? Divorced? Never married?) No citizenship or immigration information.

Which, of course, means one thing.

If there are things like that that we want the future to know about us, we’d better be creating those records ourselves or in another form altogether.

Because, genealogically speaking, the 2020 census is pretty much a bust.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “What the future will know,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 23 Mar 2020).


  1. Clause 3, Section 2, Article I, United States Constitution.
  2. “An Act providing for the enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States,” 1 Stat. 101 (1 Mar 1790).
  3. You can get a great overview of what was asked on each census from 1790-2000 in Jason Gauthier, Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses from 1790 to 2000 (Washington, DC : US Census Bureau, 2002); available as a downloadable PDF.
  4. For those agonizing over how to report, remember that there’s no legal significance to your answer to this question. It’s one of those generic demographic bits of data that we’ll all nod at and say, “How interesting that one sixth of Americans say they have German origins!” — it’s of no more importance than that. The instructions say to indicate any self-identification “with one or more nationalities or ethnic groups originating in Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.” So no need to list every ethnic origin for which your DNA test says you have any evidence at all, including that 0.001% Viking. I listed German for my paternal origins (my father was born there), and English and Scots-Irish for my maternal origins (best we can figure). If I’m wrong in some way, it isn’t going to make one whit of difference. Just do your best and stop worrying about it. Seriously.
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