Current Issues Blog

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Who counts in America?

March 5, 2019

Every ten years, the federal government conducts a census to count people residing in the United States. The information gathered helps the federal, state, and local governments plan and create public policy, identifies regional and national trends, and, most importantly, is used in apportioning seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. As the U.S. population grows, some states grow more rapidly than others, and those states may gain representation in Congress.

The census provides a useful way for teachers to engage students in conversations about the purposes of government, and about questions in U.S. democracy.

In this post, we will offer some resources and questions for teachers to help students understand discussions around the census.


Topic: The Census and Race

The census does more than counts who lives in the United States, it also sorts people into categories. These categories have shifted over time. Use this article from Vox.com to help students explore the ways in which the census has addressed race over time: 220 years of census data proves race is a social construct

Discussion Questions:

  1. How were some people and groups misrepresented in past censuses?
  2. Do you think there are any groups that might be misrepresented today? Why or why not?
  3. Should the federal government collect racial/ethnic group data? Why or why not?
  4. Why do the labels we use matter?


Topic: Census and LGBTQ Americans

The census has never counted LGBTQ individuals, meaning that there is little reliable data on the size of this population in the U.S. LGBTQ rights advocates have long sought representation through the Census, and an early draft of the 2020 Census included a question about sexual orientation. However, it was removed with little explanation in March of 2017. Here is an NBC News article about the issue.F

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why might activists and members of the LGBTQ community find it so important to be counted in the census?
  2. Why might other groups oppose this?
  3. What can we learn from the history of race on the census (see previous topic) that might help us think about this debate about gender and sexuality today?


Topic: The Census and Citizenship

A key debate about the 2020 census is whether to include a question about citizenship status. Right now, the question is being challenged in court, and the Supreme Court will hear arguments about it soon. Here is an NPR.org article about the Supreme Court case. Also, here is one set of arguments against including the citizenship question developed by Asian Americans Advancing Justice. And, here is a set of arguments in support of including the citizenship question in an editorial from Investors Business Daily.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the pros and cons of including the citizenship question on the Census?
  2. What seem to be the ulterior motives, if any, of those arguing for including the citizenship question? Those arguing against?
  3. Do you support inclusion of the question? Why or why not?


Topic: The Census and Representation

A key role for the Census is determining the distribution of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. To better understand why this matters, students can review this New York Times article from April 2, 1861, to see how the census of 1860 impacted the debate over slavery. Additionally, students can read this Rio Grand Guardian article about Texas’s worry about being undercounted.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why are states so concerned about being counted?
  2. Why are people worried about the citizenship question dissuading some people from doing the census?
  3. Do you think there are any issues today that could be affected by some states gaining representation (and electoral college votes) in the way that the issue of slavery was impacted in the 1860 census? If so, what issues, and why?


Featured image credit: The Wall Street Journal


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