Census 2000 and Service Learning


Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

For our democracy to be a true democracy, we need an accurate count and assessment of our citizenry. People who aren’t counted cannot be represented. Without knowing how and where people live, we can’t appropriately allocate our resources. For that reason, the U.S. census was one of the few functions of government delineated in our Constitution. Every ten years, we are required to learn about ourselves: How many people are we, where do we live, and how do we live? The more accurate the census and its picture of the American people, the more perfect our American democracy.

This year, young people have an opportunity to apply their energy and eagerness to serve this pillar of our democracy through census service learning projects. Service learning helps young people extend their education outside the classroom by getting involved in hands-on projects that benefit their communities. Maryland was the first state in the nation to require students to perform community service in order to graduate, and our young people have responded with overwhelming enthusiasm. They’re cleaning up playgrounds, planting trees, mentoring younger children, caring for the sick and the aged, lobbying the state legislature on the environment, and much, much more.

The census is ideal for teachers and schools looking for new service learning opportunities. Young people can help support the efforts of the census by volunteering at their local Questionnaire Assistance Center. The centers need young people who can read or translate census forms for those who need help. Students can also seek out and assist religious groups or other community organizations that are involved in raising awareness and collecting information for the census.

Working for the census, students can learn about a critical element of our democracy while finding out more about their own communities. The census affords them the chance to meet people and see parts of their community that they never knew existed. They can see first-hand some of the challenges their neighborhoods face, and what it takes to overcome them.

The census also gives them the chance to reflect on some key questions about how our government works. How are congressional districts allotted and drawn? How are government funding decisions made? Why is it important to know how many people live in a certain square block? Therefore, it’s crucial for teachers using the census as a service learning project to encourage their students to reflect on what they have learned and what the count means to us and our country.

Community service and the U.S. census have each been a critical part of our democracy since the beginning. In a fundamental way, each expresses a tenet at the very heart of the American experience. Every person matters in a democracy and each person has the opportunity to make a difference through service. There are few more important lessons we can teach our children, and few better ways to teach it than getting them involved in the U.S. census.


Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is Lt. Governor of Maryland.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.