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The first censuses counted the population and provided information on population by county. In 1790, the census also categorized white males by age: those under age 16 and those age 16 and older. Over the years, Congress has authorized additional questions, enabling us to better understand the nation's inhabitants and their activities and needs. In fact, one of the nation's founders, James Madison, suggested that the census takers ask additional questions that would help lawmakers better understand the needs of the nation.
For example, the 1810 Census also collected economic data (on the quantity and value of manufactured goods). In 1850, the census began collecting "social statistics" (information about taxes, education, crime, and value of estate, etc.) and mortality data. In 1940, additional questions were asked of a sample of the population, including questions on internal migration, veteran status, and the number of children ever born to women. These questions helped society understand the impact of the Great Depression.
Through the decades, the census has collected data on race, ancestry, education, health, housing, and transportation. An examination of the questions asked during each census illustrates changes in our nation's understanding of race, the impact of immigration, growth of the Hispanic population, and computer usage. As a result of the census's evolution, the constitutionally mandated census has grown to provide important information about the U.S. population and its housing. Coupled with data from the economic and government censuses and demographic and economic surveys, the U.S. Census Bureau provides governments, scholars, planners, businesses, and individuals the data they need to build schools, plan highways, open businesses, and distribute the billions of dollars in federal spending that sustains a growing population.