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History and Evolution of Veteran Status Questions

The first data on veterans to be published by the US government were based on an inquiry in the 1840 census, which asked the name, age, and place of residence of pensioners of the Revolutionary War. Prior to the Civil War, most interest in the number of veterans was for pension purposes. It was the expansion of veterans benefits in the early 1900s and the huge influx of veterans at the end of WWII that increased the importance of decennial census data on veterans. Veterans’ questions have appeared on every decennial census form since 1910, with the exception of 1920. The 1940 decennial census was the first year that included a statistical sample in which a percentage of the population received a longer, more detailed census form. From 1940 until the 2000 census, questions of veterans status and period of service were included on the long form. The 1980 decennial census marked the first time that information on women veterans had ever been gathered in a national survey. At the time of the 1980 census, women made up less than 3 percent of the total veteran population; today they make up about 8 percent.

Another change in 1980 was the modification of the veteran status question to indicate that its intended goal was to count only veterans who had served on “active duty.” It specifically excluded those who served only in the National Guard or Reserves. The periods of military service question was also expanded to include the Vietnam and post-Vietnam eras. The veteran status question was revised again in 1990 by expanding the question to separate current active duty, past active duty, service in the National Guard or Reserves only, and no military service. This change was meant to lessen confusion for the respondent.

Starting with Census 2010, veteran status is no longer collected on the decennial census questionnaire, except in the Island Areas.

For more information, see Historical Veteran Questions and Instructions [PDF - 54k] and Historical Veteran Status Questions [XLS - 32k].

Today, the U.S. Census Bureau collects demographic, social, and economic data on veterans of the Armed Forces using three national surveys: American Community Survey (ACS), Current Population Survey (CPS), and Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP).  The Survey of Business Owners (SBO) provides the only comprehensive, regularly collected source of information on selected economic and demographic characteristics for businesses and business owners by gender, ethnicity, race, and veteran status.

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For assistance, please contact the Census Call Center at 1-800-923-8282 (toll free) or visit ask.census.gov for further information.

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