How Much Has Changed in America Since the 1880 U.S. Census?

Photo Courtesy: [Adamkaz/Getty Images]

Largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was a year of challenges and hardships for people and places across the globe. Typical daily life was put on pause while the U.S. locked down, and this affected everything from the way people got to work to the way the government ran. One of the many difficulties the U.S. government faced in 2020 was its limited ability to collect census data, which often takes place in person — and is a vital policymaking process.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the census exists because it helps the government dictate where the country’s tax dollars go and how much money to distribute to different communities. The U.S. Census:

  • Tells us who we are and where we’re going as a nation
  • Helps our communities determine where to build everything from schools and supermarkets to homes and hospitals
  • Helps the government decide how to distribute funds and assistance to states and localities
  • Is used to draw the lines of legislative districts and reapportion the seats each State holds in Congress

The first U.S. census took place in 1790 under former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. The U.S. might be a younger country compared to others, but its 25 different census collections that have taken place during the country’s history can tell us a lot about what the U.S. was like at each point when the data were collected. The censuses together tell the long-term story of the U.S. as a whole.

The 1880 census is a peculiar case, not just because it was the first time in U.S. history when women were allowed to help the census process. To understand why, it’s necessary to compare the U.S. census of 1880 to the 2020 census. Below, we’ll show you why the 1880 census was so special and what comparing it to 2020’s census reveals.