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Will This Year’s Census Be the Last?

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Will This Year’s Census Be the Last?

In the past two centuries, the evolution of the U.S. Census has tracked the country’s social tensions and reflected its political controversies. Now its future is in question.

The New Yorker,

5 min read
4 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Harvard professor and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore takes you on a fascinating overview of the US census.

Editorial Rating



  • Comprehensive
  • Eye Opening
  • Engaging


Harvard history professor and New Yorker correspondent Jill Lepore provides a compelling overview of the ongoing 2020 United States census. She includes fascinating details about the census and its history, and compares its purpose and methods to those of other censuses throughout history, from those the Chinese emperors conducted to the countries that now follow the US model of conducting a census every 10 years. Lepore also cautions against Facebook and Google, which, she writes, gather more information about you than any government entity ever could.


Taking a census dates back to the first millennium.

By April 1, 2020, the US Census Bureau had mailed questionnaires to every home in the nation. Residents can respond online, by mail or in person by speaking to a census representative.

In the first millennium BCE, China’s Zhou dynasty ordered administrators to “count everyone with teeth.” In the Old Testament Book of Numbers, God instructs Moses to count everyone who could fight in a war.

In the United States, the census determines how many representatives go to Congress from each state. In 2018, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross tried to tack a query onto the census to determine who is a citizen and who isn’t. States, counties, cities, the United Conference of Mayors and multiple non-governmental organizations sued in response. US District Court Judge Jesse Furman found against Ross. The judge called the question illegal and likely unconstitutional, and held that Ross had attempted to undermine the law. The 2020 census features no questions regarding citizenship.

Up to 10,000 years ago, the Earth’s population never exceeded 10 million...

About the Author

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. She hosts the podcast The Last Archive and is the author of This America: The Case for the Nation.

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