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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

C is for Census

As of 01 August 2009, the world had 6,774,705,647 people, give or take. About 307 million of them resided in the United States. That info came from the International Data Base, part of the U.S. Census Bureau, which in turn is housed in the US Department of Commerce. And you thought it only dealt with domestic population statistics.

I was an enumerator for the 1990 US Census. An enumerator is the person who comes to your house in the US when you fail to fill out the form that you have been mailed. (People would save taxpayer dollars by filling and mailing the form themselves.) I did this job from late April to mid-August. Lots of employees dropped out, but since it was my primary source of income - and taking another job was impractical, since I was accepted to go to library school in September - it was an ideal position for me. I even made it into a story that was printed in the Schenectady (NY) Gazette in June of that year, though I cannot, for the life of me, find it right now.

The Census, of course, is mandated in the Constitution: "The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct," it says in Article I, section 2.

1930 Census taker, Rev. smith, enumerates a Navajo tribe

The questions asked in the Census naturally have evolved over the years. Many of them can be seen here. My personal "favorite" Census has to be the one from 1890, when they asked questions such as:
4. Whether white, black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, Chinese, Japanese, or Indian
23. Whether defective in mind, sight, hearing, or speech, or whether crippled, maimed, or deformed, with name of defect.
1890 was a technological breakthrough as well.

Census goes high tech: 1960.

1960 marked the first time people could self-select their race, 1970 featured the introduction of Hispanic ethnicity and 2000 was the first Census where one could pick more than one race.

2000 was also the last year of the long form which asked about income, education, transportation and other topics to one in six households, including mine in 2000. Data users such as local governments tired of waiting 10 years for new information prompted Census to replace the long form by the American Community Survey, which will provide annual statistics; I respond to an article about it here. The ACS has generated some controversy of being too intrusive, in part because Census has not promoted it, figuring it would affect only a small portion of people each month.

I could write about Census forever. I haven't even touched on the Economic Census, that takes place every five years, or some of the other activities of the Bureau. And, of course, the 2010 Census, with fewer than a dozen questions per householder comes out next year. But that's enough for now, except to ask the ABC Wednesday people stopping by briefly to describe the censuses in their countries. That's enough for now.



Rinkly Rimes said...

What interesting information! In Australia in the early days names were often spelled wrongly because illiterate soldiers on horseback took the details from illiterate people!

anthonynorth said...

Interesting. In the UK we have a ten year census, next due 2011. There's been a debate in recent years over what kind of questions should be asked. Should lifestyle choices be a part, etc.
For my part, it should involve minimal information. As long as I behave myself, government has no right to know anything but the basic admin stuff about me.

Regina said...

Very informative.

Ackworth born said...

When I was a student and had to fill in a census form I considered adding a fictional live-in girlfriend but thought better of it in the end.
We found ourselves on the New Zealand census when we visited there in 2001.
Not negating the research in any way but I can't see the meaning of announcing such a number so precisely as it cannot be THAT accurate.

RuneE said...

We have stopped taking censuses like that. It is nor necessary, it is impractical, it is expensive and in a little country like ours that kind of information is available elsewhere.

Strawberry Jam Anne said...

Found this really interesting Roger. I was thinking I really don't know when our next census is due, only know that it is every 10 years, then I read anthonynorth's comment. A

Kate said...

Thanks for visiting my blog, and good luck on your next venture in library school. I LOVE libraries and librarians; they save me lots and lots of money that I use to spend on book ownership, but I eventually got wise...although I do love my own personal library.

No comments on census; I, too, feel that many of the former questions have been intrusive and am pleased that the new form is shortened.

Many thanks too for catching my typo on my post today...BLOG instead of BLOB!!

Carol said...

Roger, very interesting post, and a great C. I never did like the census, and always wondered why the government needed to know some things. But it is so interesting to read about, can't believe some of the questions that used to be asked.

Joy said...

Thats interesting how your census developed, As mentioned ours is every 10 years. For my sins I used to provide info using the resulting statistics in a past job. The UK 1901 census is up on the web, a snapshot in time. The first time they put it up the site crashed because so many people wanted to look at it.

Your EG Tour Guide said...

Hmmm. What a LOT of work! I wonder how the U.S. government uses this information.

Rebecca Hickman said...

Isn't it strange how labels change? Kind of like the AACR2.

uncleawang said...

Interesting post,i love the B&W photo its was wonderful images:)
Thanks fro droping by & have a wonderful day.

Irene Toh said...

Statistics tell a story. Very interesting post. We've got to respond to govt surveys here in Singapore and I find it sooo intrusive.

Amy said...

Roger, I really really like blogs where I can learn something. You had so many links re CENSUS - it made my head spin! My brother-in-law works for the census in Arkansas - so far he's only checked addresses. I'm shocked by some of the questions on the ACS form - it's none of their business! Thanks for commenting on my "c" posting - this is a new exercise for me and it's fun, plus educational!

magiceye said...

that was interesting...
in india we have government employees mandated for the job visit everybody for the census

jay said...

How interesting to be an enumerator! Did you find many people who were uncooperative?

I love censuses. I find them so useful for doing family history research - you learn a lot about the households, and see how people have changed the name they choose to use, who's living with whom, etc, and what they all do for a living. It's utterly fascinating, and I hope our descendants will read our data some day.

Janie said...

Great photos of the farmer and the Navajo family.
Great info.
Those old census questions definitely lacked sensitivity.

Tumblewords: said...

Creative C! And wonderful commentary... Love the 1960 hi-tech photo!

Dragonstar said...

This is very informative. On one census form some years back we were asked about our sanitary facilities - ours (we lived on an island at the time with absolutely no facilities of any kind) our answer had to come under the heading of "other", as "a bucket behind the door" wasn't on the list! :)

On behalf of the Team, thanks for participating.