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As the United States grew, the nation's interests became more complex. People and policy planners needed a more detailed idea of the economic and demographic characteristics of America so that they could make decisions and plan for the future. Because of this, the census expanded over time from a simple headcount in 1790 (which only classified Americans by age, sex, and race), to over 200 different surveys today.
U.S. Census Bureau programs can be split into two broad categories: demographic and economic. The number of inquiries under each of these categories has expanded over time, gaining accuracy even as they also grow increasingly detailed.
In 1810, the census was expanded to obtain, for the first time, information on manufacturing and manufactured products. After a hiatus in 1830, the economic portion of the census returned in 1840, with added questions on agriculture, mining, and fisheries. The 1850 census also was the first demographic census to collect social data, including questions on taxation, churches, pauperism and crime. The amount of information collected would only increase in the following decades.
With the creation of a permanent Census Bureau in 1902, there was an opportunity to expand the survey-taking role of the Census Bureau beyond the decennial demographic and economic censuses.
The latter half of the twentieth century saw the introduction of three important demographic surveys that continue today: the Current Population Survey, the Survey of Income and Program Participation, and the American Housing Survey. Because they are conducted more often and are much more detailed, these surveys are able to use statistical sampling to present regular detailed information about the nation's population.
The economic census was eventually spun off from the decennial census in 1902 (with the first census of manufacturing establishments conducted in 1905). Now taken every five years, the economic census, along with the censuses of governments and agriculture, covers more than 98 percent of commercial activity in the United States.
The mission of the Census Bureau has expanded along with the population and economy of the United States, keeping up with the nation’s insatiable appetite for facts and figures. Today the Census Bureau's demographic and economic programs are an invaluable planning tool for citizens, businesses, and government officials.