I know, I know. What’s more thrilling than watching paint dry? Talking about census records, duh! But stay with me, because there’s a lot of fascinating history behind the census. I promise!
As you prepare to celebrate the upcoming 2020 census by partying like it’s 1790, here are ten things you may not have known about this critical piece of bureaucracy:
- Federal marshals used to carry it out. Through an act of Congress, U.S. marshals were once required to count the residents in their respective districts. For the first Census in 1790, 650 men on horseback were dispatched to go door-to-door around the original 13 states, often in super rural and rough terrain. But in 1879, concerns over inefficiencies (uh, yeah) prompted Congress to replace the marshals with trained enumerators. And in 1902, Congress created a permanent government agency, the U.S. Census Bureau.
- The United States was the first country in the world to make a census a mandatory part of its constitution. Article 1, Section 2 of the US Constitution mandates that a census must be done every ten years and that representatives of Congress and taxes “shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this union, according to their respective numbers”.
- The Last Frontier Goes First. Due to the “spring thaw” marking the conclusion of winter every April in Alaska, many residents travel elsewhere for a change of scenery. That’s why the census is conducted on January 25th of the census year before most Alaskans travel away from home.
- Los Angeles County is considered the hardest to count in the U.S. census. A range of factors make those in Los Angeles County hard to count, including language barriers, lack of internet access, frequent moving between residences, and distrust of government. Adding to the complexity is a high population of renters and increasing gentrification of low-income communities pushing hard-to-count populations out of cities and into areas with fewer resources for community outreach.
- The “72 Year Rule” governs census record privacy. There’s actually a federal law protecting the privacy of individual-level records for 72 years. The most common explanation around why that number of years was chosen is that 72 was the average lifespan at the time the law was passed in 1978, although it’s difficult to find concrete evidence corroborating this hypothesis.
- Census records are protected by law and strictly confidential. One of the best examples I can share to bring this point to life is from 1953 during the Truman administration. When the White House was undergoing renovations, the President was planning to relocate to another location until the renovation was complete. The Secret Service requested information on residents living in the proposed relocation area from the Census Bureau to perform background checks. The request was denied because census data is considered absolutely confidential – even to the president.
- The census is the US government’s largest peacetime operation. During the 2010 census, more than one million workers counted roughly 310 million people in approximately 120 million households. This works out to one census worker for every 310 residents. That’s a long to-do list.
- Some census results have gone up in smoke. Thanks to a fire in 1921 at the Commerce Department, more than 99 percent of the 1890 census records were destroyed. And many early state census records from Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee and Virginia, have been lost or, likely, destroyed when British forces set fire to D.C. during the War of 1812.
- It took more than seven years to process the 1880 count of 50 million Americans. At the time, the population of the United States was increasing so quickly that it was predicted the 1890 census would take in excess of ten years to process. Just in time for the next census to be taken (yikes). So, the US Census Bureau decided to hold a contest among its employees to find a faster, more efficient method to tabulate the census data. And the winner was….
- A new punch card machine, invented by Census Bureau employee Herman Hollerith. The 1890 census was the first to use a new electric tabulating machines which could count 63 million records in less than a year, with three times as many questions as the previous census. Winner, winner.
We’re living in wild times here in 2020, to be sure. But one thing’s for certain: the census must go on!