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The Census Bureau's Director writes on how we measure America's people, places and economy.
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In 1950, the newly enacted Title 13, Section 161 [PDF], of the U.S. Code, required the U.S. Census Bureau to conduct a census of governments during years ending in "2" and "7." Although the Census Bureau completed preparatory work, data collection was not conducted in 1952 due to a lack of funding. As a result, the 1957 Census of Governments was the first conducted under provisions of the 1950 legislation.
Currently, the census of governments consists of three phases that include data collection from state and local governments, supplemented by data from the federal government. Phase 1 of the census is a directory survey of more than 89,000 local governments. This includes extensive legal research into government structure by state, as well as a mailout/mailback survey, and produces an updated list of all local governments and selected data.
Phase 2 of the census covers all federal (civilian agencies), state and local governments and expands the census-year annual employment survey from about 10,000 to more than 89,000 local governments. It relies on consolidated submissions from more than 30 states via Internet data collection and a mailout/mailback survey.
Census operations conclude with phase 3 of the census, which covers all state and local governments and expands the annual survey of state and local government finances (for that census year) from about 14,000 to more than 89,000 state and local governments. Phase 3 uses in-house data compilations of source documents for many of the state and largest local governments, consolidated data submissions (usually electronic files) from about 55,000 local governments, Internet data collection, and a mailout/mailback survey of the remaining governments.