Population Data Sources: Census, Vital Statistics & Surveys Video

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  • 0:00 Counting People
  • 0:42 The Census
  • 2:22 Vital Statistics
  • 3:27 Samples and Surveys
  • 4:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore various methods of collecting population data, and discover how each one is used. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Counting People

Sometimes it's very useful for a government to know what's going on inside the country it governs. Is the population of eligible taxpayers increasing or decreasing? How many children are old enough for public schools? Are people happy or do they want to start a revolution and overthrow the government? These are useful things to know. Now, that's a lot of information to gather, and so the question becomes: how do you collect that much data? After all, the United States alone has an estimated population of around 320 million. Well, governments are nothing if not clever, and they've figured out some interesting ways to keep track of the people they govern.

The Census

Among the various ways for a government to collect population data is the census, a periodic and systematic record of population information. A census is intended to record data on as many people as is physically possible in order to produce the most accurate results. This means that they are a really big deal. The idea of the census dates back to ancient Rome, when all adult males were counted so the emperor knew how many men he could conscript into an army if need be. For you Bible enthusiasts, this is why Joseph and Mary were traveling to Jerusalem - it was time for the census. Anyway, the modern census counts everybody, not just males, and while it is mostly a digital process now, for decades official census takers would travel across countries, counting people by hand.

Since the census is so thorough, it is a very useful tool for governments. Many censuses focus on a specific issue that a government wants to address, like housing, business or traffic. The census can show how many tax-payers are in each region, estimate the amount of federal money that will be needed for schools, roads or parks and indicate important trends in healthcare and overall happiness. The census is so important to the ability of a government to successfully provide for its citizens that the United Nations strongly recommends that every country holds a census at least once every ten years. This, by the way, is how often the US conducts its census. Census data is generally published so that businesses and researchers can also use that information as a data source.

Vital Statistics

Now, the census is thorough and effective, but it is also time-consuming and, frankly, there are some things that you don't need to know every ten years. For example, your birthday probably isn't going to change unless you were born on a leap year, but that doesn't count. Anyway, certain things happen rarely enough that they only need to be recorded once, and these are called vital statistics. The traditional vital statistics are birth, death, marriage and divorce. So, let me ask, what do these have in common? Well, they all have to be legally recorded, don't they? You have a birth certificate and a death certificate, a marriage license and a divorce. . . I think they actually call it a decree. Yeah, your marriage is a license, but your divorce is a decree. Anyway, this is how vital statistics are collected. Since any change in vital statistics has to be legally recorded, there's no need to continuously collect information.

Samples and Surveys

So, changes like marriages and deaths are recorded with vital statistics, but in the ten years between censuses other things change too, and those things are still very useful to know. How did people vote in the last local election? Do any potholes need fixed? Are people in region A more likely to break into revolution than people in region B?

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