A census tract, census area, census district or meshblock is a geographic region defined for the purpose of taking a census. Sometimes these coincide with the Border of cities, or other administrative areas and several tracts commonly exist within a county. In unincorporated areas of the United States these are often arbitrary, except for coinciding with political lines.
Census tracts represent the smallest territorial entity for which population data are available in many countries. In the United States, census tracts are subdivided into block groups and . In Canada they are divided into dissemination areas. In the U.S., census tracts are "designed to be relatively homogeneous units with respect to population characteristics, economic status, and living conditions" and "average about 4,000 inhabitants". U.S. Census Bureau definition
After 1930, the Census Bureau saw the need to standardize the delineation, review, and updating of census tracts and published the first set of census tract criteria in 1934. The goal of the criteria has remained unchanged; that is, to assure comparability and data reliability through the standardization of the population thresholds for census tracts, as well as requiring that their boundaries follow specific types of geographic features that do not change frequently. The Census Bureau began publishing census tract data as part of its standard tabulations beginning with the 1940 Census. Prior to that time, census tract data were published as special tabulations.
For the 1940 Census, the Census Bureau began publishing census block data for all cities with 50,000 or more people. Census block numbers were assigned, where possible, by census tract, but for those cities that had not yet delineated census tracts, ‘‘block areas’’ (called ‘‘block numbering areas’’ BNAs in later censuses) were created to assign census block numbers. Starting with the 1960 Census, the Census Bureau assumed a greater role in promoting and coordinating the delineation, review, and update of census tracts. For the 1980 Census, criteria for BNAs were changed to make them more comparable in size and shape to census tracts. For the 1990 Census, all counties contained either census tracts or BNAs.
Census 2000 was the first decade in which census tracts were defined in all counties. In addition, the Census Bureau increased the number of geographic areas whose boundaries could be used as census tract boundaries. It also allowed tribal governments of federally recognized American Indian tribes with a reservation and/or off-reservation trust lands to delineate tracts without regard to State and/or county boundaries, provided the tribe had a 1990 Census population of at least 1,000.
Census tracts are also used by the Small Business Administration to define boundaries of HUBZone.