(June 2001) The U.S. population stood at 281,421,906 on April 1, 2000, according to the decennial census. The new total represented an addition of 32.7 million Americans since the 1990 Census—the largest numerical increase ever between censuses. The 2000 Census recorded a population gain in every state during the 1990s—the only decade in the 20th century with such widespread growth.

The 2000 Census was much more than an enumeration of the population on a specific spring day. It repeated a national event carried out every 10 years since 1790, and ushered in a third century of census-taking in the United States. The census is required by the U.S. Constitution to allocate congressional representation, but its significance extends far beyond this. Nearly $200 billion in federal funds ($185 billion in 1998) are distributed to the states each year based to some extent on census counts. Geographic boundaries of districts for members of Congress, state legislators, and other political leaders are redrawn using census data. Census results also provide information to thousands of people in the public and private sector who make decisions about health, education, transportation, protection of natural areas, pollution abatement, community services, housing, consumer marketing, economic planning, and many other issues. Census results measure progress and give direction for future actions. Experts in demography, economics, and many other fields will spend years examining the 2000 Census data for clues about how the U.S. population is doing and how it has changed.

The latest census was full of surprises even for demographers who carefully track records of births and deaths, and use sophisticated techniques to estimate migration from abroad and within the country. Among the surprises were:

  • The census counted nearly 7 million more people than the U.S. Census Bureau had estimated for April 2000—and it still may have missed as many as 3 million.
  • The Census Bureau recommended against adjusting the census for an undercount, contrary to expectations.
  • The U.S. Hispanic population apparently grew much faster than anticipated—and edged past African Americans to become the nation’s largest racial or ethnic minority.
  • New York, Chicago, and several other major cities gained residents, in some cases reversing a decadesold trend of population decline.
  • The shift in congressional apportionment was greater than expected: 12 of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives changed from one state to another.
  • The census cost less than anticipated.
  • U.S. residents were more cooperative than expected about returning census questionnaires.

The 2000 Census broke new ground by allowing Americans to identify with more than one race. It also asked a new question about the role of grandparents as caregivers for dependent children. It was the first census effort to use paid advertising to boost response rates. And the results of this census will be the most accessible ever to Americans because of new computer technologies and the Internet.

But the 2000 Census also raises some questions that may defy solution any time soon. Why was the count so much larger than expected? Was this number larger or smaller than the actual number of U.S. residents on April 1, 2000? Who was missed or counted more than once? How will the new racial categories play out in the coming decade? Is this the beginning of the end of the statistical category “race” in this country?

Several Western and Southern states gained congressional seats at the expense of states in the Northeast and Midwest. Some metro areas saw their populations shift toward outer suburbs—and some suburbs turned from majority white to predominantly minority. How will these demographic changes affect the U.S. political scene? Will Census 2000 escape the legal controversies of the 1980 and 1990 Censuses?

This Population Bulletin looks at some of the major findings of the 2000 Census as of April 2001, and considers the importance of these trends not only to demographers, journalists, business people, and politicians, but to all Americans.

Mary M. Kent is the editor of the Population Bulletin at the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) and has written and edited publications on a variety of U.S. and international population issues. Kelvin M. Pollard is a research demographer at PRB. John Haaga is director of PRB’s domestic programs. Mark Mather is a policy analyst at PRB, where he coordinates several projects that communicate population research to advocacy groups, educators, the media, and the public.