Wait a second – the US Census doesn’t count Americans abroad?

How I missed this, I don’t know, but here’s the deal: if you’re an American living abroad, and you weren’t physically in the United States on April 1, then you will not be counted in the 2010 US census (in fact, you would’ve only been counted in the 1960 and 1970 censuses). Exceptions are made for federal employees and military personnel who can be assigned to states. Why this injustice? It’s hard (just you try and find all the Americans in Shanghai), and expensive (as in, US$1450 per counted American), as this 2004 GAO report outlines. It’s a surprisingly good read, actually, especially the bit about the “overseas marketing firm” hired to spread the word among Americans in France, Kuwait, and Mexico that a census was taking place. The experience with said firm should sound familiar to anyone who’s ever asked someone else to leave fliers for them in expat-oriented establishments:

However, at 21 sites we visited, we found various discrepancies between what the public relations firm indicated had occurred, and what actually took place. For example, while the firm’s tracking system indicated that questionnaires would be available at a restaurant and an English-language bookstore in Guadalajara, none were present.

Likewise, in Paris, we went to several locations where the tracking system indicated that census information would be available. None was. In fact, at some of these sites, not only was there no information about the census, but there was no indication that the organization we were looking for resided at the address we had from the database.

That’s a good one.

Anyway, I’d be more sympathetic to the plight of the Census Bureau if it weren’t for the fact that every American abroad I’ve met in the last ten years is connected to this thing called the Internet which, so far as I can tell, ensures two-way communications between them and government agencies that handle things like, I dunno, taxes and voting. I’m sure it comes with its own problems, but for the love of god and country, it surely gives a more accurate picture (at cheaper than US$1450/head) than whistling down the street, pretending that the only Americans abroad are those on the federal payroll! [update: or a dependent of someone on the federal payroll]

In the meantime, funny to think that – for the next ten years – I am an “uncounted and unenumerated” American. Thought: does that do anything to help me with the two unpaid Minneapolis parking tickets I acquired in February?

[UPDATE: A quick clarification posted in response to Zach‘s good comment and question, below. I’m not asking to be counted as an ‘American abroad,’ per se. Instead, like federal employees and military personnel who fill out the forms when abroad, I’m asking to be counted as a resident of my home state. In my case, Minnesota. It makes sense: after all, I’m a Minnesota voter, tax payer, and driver’s license holder. Why, then, shouldn’t the state have the opportunity to count me as its own in a census that determines, eventually, the boundaries of my legislative district, among other matters? At the same time, I do think there’s value in having demographic data on Americans living abroad.]


  1. Spreading the word in France, Kuwait and Mexico? What a choice of locales.

    Most Americans remain helplessly provincial.

  2. Monday morning I think you need to be the first person in line at American Citizen Services and demand to be counted, then report back.

  3. Adam,

    As someone living abroad, why would you want to be counted in the U.S. Census? After all, you’re not in the United States — and most of the data collected from the census goes to better understanding the demographic breakdown of American citizens within the U.S.

  4. Zach – Fair question.

    Census data taken from Americans abroad is assigned to home states. Which makes sense: even though I live abroad, I vote in Minnesota. So, to my mind at least, it makes sense that the census should count me in Shanghai as a Minnesota resident – so that the Minnesota legislature can then draw legislative districts based upon that fact, provide services (I have a MN driver’s license), etc. That’s why the Census Bureau counts federal employees and military personnel: theoretically, at least, they’re still voting back home, consuming services, and paying taxes. Sure, they’ll miss some of us, but some is better than none – which is the situation now.

  5. Does any country include non residents in censuses?

    It wouldn’t make any sense to do so. The point of the census is to find out how many people are in the country!

  6. Liuzhou Laowai – the US has been counting federal employees abroad, military personnel abroad (and respective dependents for both groups) for more than a century. I explained the reason in the comment above yours, and in an addendum to my post. The only reason that they don’t count private citizens abroad, as outlined in the GAO report, is that it’s hard and expensive.

  7. I always thought the point of a census was to be a snapshot of the people living in any particular country/state/city at that particular date in time, and if you’re not there, so be it. Census data is big-picture stuff, and anyone using it knows that it’s meant to show broad-brush changes over the last decade, not anything more specific.

    I’m not sure why federal employees and military personnel abroad get counted, though. But really, I think it’s up to the individual whether it’s important to you to be counted as living in your country when you’re not. It’s not up to the government to track down its citizens and offer them a chance to stand up for a country they’re not in. And sure, there’s lots of people travelling out of the country for a short time who should be counted and don’t, but there’s just as many people staying in the country for a short time who shouldn’t be counted and do.

    Seems like a bit of a useless thing to get upset about.

  8. Alex – I don’t want to be a jerk, but I wonder if you read the entire post and the comments before making your comment. If so, you would’ve seen my addendum to the post, explaining how the federal employee and military census data is used, as well as two comments in which I reiterate that point. It has nothing to do with counting how many people are abroad, but rather counting people abroad for the purpose of assigning them to their home states. As I pointed out, I vote in Minnesota, and yet – because GAO determined that counting me abroad is too expensive – I will not be counted in Minnesota. There’s a good public policy reason for doing this. In any case, please read the full post and comments; they may change your mind.

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