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The U.S. Census: A Vital Part of Democracy

The U.S. Census: A Vital Part of Democracy

For the last couple of months, we have been reminded by the news media that the U.S. Census will be underway soon, yet few people realize how truly vital this population count is to our republic. Government by the people requires a regular effort to count the people. In essence, the U.S. Census provides a regularly updated blueprint for our democracy.

Mandated by the Constitution that a census be taken every 10 years, the U.S. government has been tallying our population since 1790. Based on the figures obtained, the government makes extraordinarily important decisions ranging from the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives to how to allocate federal funds; state governments rely on census figures for planning school construction and developing social service programs; local government use them to determine important issues such as allotment of emergency services.

Until 1960, the census was primarily conducted by door-to-door canvassing done by “enumerators.” During the last half of the twentieth century, census officials realized that with a fast-growing mobile population, the U.S. Postal Service could be the primary tool for information-gathering. Today most people will receive the “short form” census that takes about 10 minutes to fill out; a portion of the population will be sent a longer form that is estimated to take about 40 minutes to complete.

Those who neglect or refuse to fill out a census form are breaking the law, and fines can be levied for failure to participate. This is as true now as it has been in the past. In 1910 Albert Falke, Supervisor of the Census for Manhattan and the Bronx, instructed his census takers to handle refusal in this way:

“If after kind words, a person refuses to answer, find a policeman and ask him to accompany you to the house. The policeman will instruct the person that it is a misdemeanor not to answer. If he still refuses to answer, report the matter to us and we will do the rest…” (New York Times 4-10-1910)

Technology to help with the counting process began to be used as early as 1890 when the census bureau acquired an electrical machine that could add up responses. It required workers to punch holes in cards to reflect the information gathered by enumerators. By 1910, this hole-punching process could be done more quickly by a newly invented machine. Similar to a typewriter, the apparatus had 240 keys, and the operator could use it to punch holes more quickly. The cards were then fed into an electric tabulating machine that permitted pins to pass through the holes in the cards to record an electric circuit which then tabulated a count. All documentation supporting the results was to be preserved in vaults in case results were ever called in to question.

A Look Back
If we were to look back a century to see what challenges faced the census enumerators of 1910, we would find them seriously weighing their best options for getting everyone counted, just as the Census Bureau is doing today.

A scan of The New York Times of that year showed that there was great consideration as to how to count the transient population of New York City. Counting the homeless who stood in bread lines was discussed, but administrators determined that it would be impossible to keep from counting some people twice. Instead it was determined that they would select a specific night and enumerators would travel the city, counting all who slept in the parks and the ferryboats. (NYT 4-21-1910)

Rooming houses were also visited. Enumerators explained their mission to the clerks on duty and then proceeded to go upstairs to wake each person, sit on their bed, and get answers to what was then a 32-question form.

Census Superintendent Albert Falke noted: “”While conducting the raid [of the rooming houses] we saw all sort of unfortunate characters of the under world…. We met broken-down magazine writers, literary hacks, and college men. A United States Minister, who many years ago was duly accredited to a foreign Power was among them… He could speak twelve different languages. I won’t tell you where he was staying, or who he was, or what he looked like. It is against my oath.” (NYT 4-17-10)

The census of 1910 was the first year that questionnaires were distributed in major cities a day or two in advance so that people had an opportunity to become familiar with the questions before approached by a census taker, and this was found to speed the process.

Enumerators in 1910 were paid 2.5 cents for each name for which all answers were obtained. Estimates were that enumerators could make $4-5 per day. Though there were far more applicants for the job then positions, the enumerators soon found that the job had its challenges. The New York Times reported that after only five days, ten of the census enumerators (out of 1720 canvassing Manhattan and the Bronx) had resigned for “nervous prostration [from] ringing door bells and demanding to know things which were considered impertinent by some, especially the women.” The impertinent questions involved issues like marital status and age. Those who resigned required a physician’s note because enumerators were fined $500 if they quit before the job was complete. (NYT 4-21-1910)

This year the official day for the U.S. Census is April 1, and during the month of March all households should receive questionnaires. As citizens of the United States, it is our obligation to participate. The results will make a difference to our community, our state, and our country.

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