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Post Office Boxes And Households Without Forms

April 03, 2010
Robert Groves

We finished one of our big operations, called Update/Leave, for areas that get their mail from post office boxes, and for other areas like the Gulf Coast regions affected by the hurricanes. For this operation, Census Bureau staff hand delivered census forms, usually leaving them on the front door knob in a plastic bag. We were on time and under budget, a testament to the quality staff doing the work.

Not all households that have post office box delivery will enjoy this dropped-off census form. Indeed, if there is an area with only one house that has stopped mail delivery to their address in preference for a post office box, that address has not yet received a census form.

Why is this the case?

Based on their usual residence (where they usually live and sleep) as of Census Day, people must be assigned by the Census Bureau to states (for reapportionment of the House of Representatives) and to individual blocks (for purposes of redistricting by the states and for the myriad uses of census data in funding/program decisions by federal agencies, states, tribes, local governments, and the private sector). Thus, we must both count people and assign them to a physical location where their living quarters are actually located. To do this, we conduct the census focused on where people live. The enumeration is driven by where people live, not by where they receive their mail. This concept of usual residence was established by the Census Act of March 1, 1790, as the interpretation of the Constitutional language requiring a census to determine the number of persons in each state.

Post office boxes can be used to retrieve mail in any place one wishes to receive the mail. The boxes can be far away from the home of the owner of the box; boxes can be shared by multiple people who live in different housing units; some boxes are not attached to households but to businesses. For these reasons, the Census Bureau does not mail census forms to post office boxes.

For the few households that live in an area where mail is routinely delivered to homes but they’ve chosen to receive their mail at a post office box, we will visit their address in the “nonresponse follow up” stage of the census, starting on May 1. In fact, we have mailed census forms to many of these units, but given US Postal Service rules, they likely are returned to us as undeliverable as addressed (given the choice to use a post office box address).

So for those with post office box delivery who haven’t yet received a form, we’ll see you after May 1. Please open your door to our census taker and provide your answers at that time.

Please submit any questions pertaining to this post to

Director Robert Groves


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