Who Is No. 1? Whoever Gets to Fill Out 2020 Census Form

The 2020 Census will help determine how $1.5 trillion in federal spending is distributed as well as how many congressional seats each state gets

2020 Census
John Amis/AP

It's a question spouses, domestic partners and roommates are going to be forced to confront in the next few weeks as they fill out their 2020 Census forms: Who gets to be the primary person in the household?

Everyone else who lives in the home has to be identified on the form by how they are related to so-called "Person 1." It's a question that even the most egalitarian homes are going to have to figure out — though it's sure to spark some intriguing conversations.

For married couple Debbie Kleinberg and Frankie Huff, it's a no-brainer.

“Me, because anytime Frankie has paperwork, I do it,” said Kleinberg, a credit administrator, who lives with her college-professor wife in an Orlando suburb.

Kleinberg says the 2020 Census-answering process in their home will follow a familiar pattern.

“The notice will come in the mail. It will sit on the kitchen table for a couple of days, or weeks. It may even get lost, and we will find it after sorting through a pile of bills later,” Kleinberg said.

But she will eventually fill it out.

“Being introverts, we don’t want anyone knocking on our door,” she said.

Deciding who fills out the questionnaire may force spouses or domestic partners to talk about power dynamics they might not have discussed for 10 years, since the last time there was a decennial census, said Diana Betz, an assistant professor of psychology at Loyola University Maryland. In some households, she added, the topic might never have come up.

That could mean contemplating whether having a bigger salary or a more important job title trumps the traditional gender norms a couple may have settled into, or if doing more for a household through domestic chores or child-raising gives someone the claim, Betz said.

“You might be saying stuff that was previously left unspoken,” Betz said.

In Betz's home, her husband, an economist, will be filling out the questionnaire when it first becomes available in mid-March, but that's only because he wrote his dissertation about the census. “So, that's a complicating factor," she said.

The 2020 form says “Person 1" should be someone who pays the rent or owns the home. If nobody meets that description, “start by listing any adult living here as Person 1," according to the form.

Knowing how everyone else is related to “Person 1" helps the Census Bureau understand the different types of households there are, and their numbers, such as family households with a grandparent living in the home.

Until 40 years ago, Person 1 was called “head of household” or “head of family.” But the U.S. Census Bureau stopped using those monikers as more women were entering the workforce and fewer men were the sole breadwinners. “Householder” also is used to describe the person to whom the relationship of all other household members is recorded.

The most recent American Community Survey offers a sneak-peak of how the genders of “Person 1" may break down in the 2020 Census — and it points to a fairly even divide.

In 2018, there were a total of 79 million households with families. In 41 million of those homes, the householder was a man, and in 38 million homes, the householder was a woman.

This year, there are more options on the census form for describing how people are related to Person 1 since the Census Bureau has added categories like "opposite-sex unmarried partner," "same-sex husband/wife/spouse" and "same-sex unmarried partner." The change came after the 2010 census when the form only had "husband or wife" and "unmarried partners" to describe romantic attachments. Several studies have theorized that same-sex couples from the 2010 census were inflated due to unintentional mis-markings by confused heterosexual married couples.

Unlike in years past, most people won't be filling out the form by hand and mailing it back. Instead, the Census Bureau is encouraging a majority of respondents to answer the questions online, although people also will be able to answer by telephone and by mailing in their responses. Census workers will be sent out to knock on the doors of homes of people who haven't responded by May.

The 2020 Census will help determine how $1.5 trillion in federal spending is distributed as well as how many congressional seats each state gets.

The Census Bureau offers no guidance on how to sort out who comes first.

When asked how people should decide who in their home gets to respond, Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham said he wasn’t going to venture an opinion, “just as long as someone is answering and we get a self-response.”

And who will be filling out the form in his home?

“That’s a good question,” Dillingham said. “Hopefully, I’m home and maybe it will be me. But if not, my wife will do a great job.”


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