My Two Census

Formerly the non-partisan watchdog of the 2010 US Census, and currently an opinion blog that covers all things political, media, foreign policy, globalization, and culture…but sometimes returning to its census/demographics roots.

We, The Census

Jamie Stiehm over at U.S. Daily News and Report has an interesting essay on the unifying essence of the Census. When these days certain talk-show hosts with a disproportinate amount of influence can rally a good chnk of Americans against the Census, it’s nice to read about it’s completely Constitutional inception. Take a look:

Have I told you how much I love the Census? Jump in, let’s go for a ride around the block of American democracy to count every single person living on it–babies, the young and the old, students and workers, single and married, rich, poor, and anxious members of the middle class, artists and bus drivers, wired and not, employed and unemployed, the uninsured sick and the covered healthy, military and civilian, homeless, incarcerated and free, citizens and immigrants, people of any religion, color, language or kind. And now it’s over this time around, so let me say a few good words on what it’s all about.

The Census is the closest we come to giving true, timely meaning to “We the People.” It’s a quintessentially American pursuit, dreamed up and penned on paper by the Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention, this “enumeration” process of counting the particulars to understand the whole. The first Census, carried out in 1790, was directed by Thomas Jefferson. It held up a mirror to an energetic nation, a brilliant mosaic then as well as now, inventing itself. African-Americans were in the first census, both enslaved and free blacks, but their lower social status was reflected by the lack of names for each and every one. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1870 Census, the first taken after the Civil War, that African-Americans were considered citizens with recorded names to go with their numbers. The pre-1870 silence was broken; family genealogies and histories at last began to speak more clearly across time. For historians, names to go with occupations and addresses meant precious identities could be recovered, say, for a study of the community of Chesapeake watermen back in the late 19th century.

Jefferson’s direction of the first Census is a little-known fact. That’s a shame, for it may have helped quell the tide of anti-government hostility and threats many Census 2010 workers encountered on the job. Doors were slammed in their faces, dogs snarled at and bit them, and some were even run off private property with a shotgun. Jefferson, the Founding Father most fearful of government intrusion into people’s lives and liberty and all that jazz, understood that a proper census was essential to political fair play in dividing up each state’s seats in Congress. More than that, the inquiring social scientist in him wished to know the answer to who dwelled where in the early Republic. Take Nantucket Island, in 1790 a rising whaling capital. The answer: about 5,000 whites, predominantly Quakers, and just a handful of native Wampanoag Indians.

The first Census was a wonder to behold, carried out by federal marshals. So was the last, though ours tells a sadder story. The sheer scope and ambition involved in organizing this endeavor (every 10 years) of counting us, in cities and plains, by the millions, is breathtaking. I remember explaining the Census 2000 methods to a fascinated journalist from Bosnia and taking him to the enormous nerve center of Baltimore’s operation. As a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, it was my job to be there, but it was also my pleasure. I was actually proud to see the job the federal government was doing in counting this city populace of about 650,000 souls in the last peaceful and prosperous year of the Clinton presidency. The Democratic mayor, now Maryland’s governor, Martin O’Malley, was happy with that number because it showed the city had slowed losing residents at a rapid rate. Once an industrial powerhouse, the waterfront city of Baltimore hit its peak population in mid-century. In 1950, it weighed in at 900,000 residents, census figures show. Baltimore before the Civil War had the largest population of free blacks.

These are good things to know to trace the ebb and flow of our own back stories. And even in an age of profound distress, economic and otherwise, the Census can be a morale-booster as an excellent temporary employer to help make ends meet for all manner of people. Unfortunately, all those well-paying government jobs for census-takers are now being phased out. They include college graduates and middle-aged job seekers who will be out in the cold of this 9.5 percent unemployment-rate economy again. While they enjoyed getting to know their communities better, few look forward to being on their own again, missing a sense of mission. Counting 300 million people (more or less) creates motivation and dedication among its civilian foot soldiers. It’s a shame to say good-bye to people who are serving their country, too, if not in uniform.

To prescient Republicans in the George W. Bush era, geniuses who decided to skip the “occupation” question for Census 2010 forms and visits, it’s as if you knew relatively few would have an answer ready on that point. That’s the tragic flaw of this census, that we won’t have a well of rich first-hand reporting on how people across America fended for themselves and fed their families in these hard times, the worst in memory for many. This disservice to ordinary peoples’ lives and our collective social history, like past blind spots in the Census, shall not soon be forgotten and forgiven.

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8 Responses to “We, The Census”

  1. george wilberg Says:

    The piece “We, the Census” unfortunately is “flawed.” Census 2010 had a questionnaire that would ruffle the feathers on any American in my opinion. Yes it gave some jobs for awhile but forcing enumerators to go back up to six times to burned out, vacant, or demolished houses is not my way of thinking that the Census is being conducted properly. Questions that keep repeating themselves as in training such as what is your sex after you see some 300 lb weightlifter who goes by the name of Joe is not my idea of a great ice breaker question. When Joe says his wife Susan should be added and then you say “what is her sex-male or female” again is not a great conversational tool to use! And what idiot decided to use the N word in race for one box where it states “Afro-American”, “Black” or “Negro?” The other question about does this house have a mortgage, do you rent, or is it free and clear just doesn’t seem to correspond to what the 1790 Census attempted to do such as “count people!” Could say more but what is the use-having been a Recruiter and Enumerator for Census 2010 it was a constant battle with management to get the job done-changes were day to day. But many good points in this article and I agree about the occupation question….yes how many Americans now have an “occupation” with this economy in a downward spiral?

  2. ALincoln Says:

    I agree with the premise that the census is a wonderful exercise in democracy. And I don’t know what it was like working on the census in earlier times. I have been working as a NRFU and VDC enumerator this time, and the experience has shaken my belief in an actual count. Although I am working with a number of fine people who do a professional job, the process is deeply flawed. I agree with criticisms of the EQ questions voiced by GW above. In addition, it seems to be the leadership at even the LCO level and certainly above is either incompetent, corrupt, or both. Directions are unclear, always changing, and often counter-productive. The whole thing seems to be more oriented toward putting federal dollars where politicians wanted them than about building an organization that can effectively produce an accurate count. My area is one where enumeration is not that difficult, so I can only imagine how bad it is some places. Something very different needs to be done next time.

  3. anonymous Says:

    One of the reasons I want to work for the Census is to help record information for future generations, especially my great, great, great grandchildren.

  4. Samantha Jackson Says:

    It’s refreshing to read something positive about the work we do. Someone appreciates us. Jamie Stiehm really, really likes us! LOL!

    No, the operations weren’t perfect. But I know a lot of people, myself included, who worked their behinds off for this project and their country and community. Call me an idealist, but I believe in the work I’ve done.

    Yes, there were misdeeds committed by management at the RCC level. Yes, the mass firings and threats of such were deplorable. I just can’t give up on counting the people and serving my community because management at some far away place is messed up. My community needs dedicated people here who want to get it right.

    I went with an enumerator to try to get the interview of a previous refusal. The homeowner, while polite, went on a tirade about Obama and the economy, saying all the while he wouldn’t answer our questions. At one point he looked at me and said, you live here, right? I said, yes. He said, you don’t seriously believe in what you’re doing do you? I said, yes sir, I really do. And that’s the truth.

    Thanks for posting this article. It’s really nice (and rare) to be appreciated.

  5. Ignatius Says:

    What an utter bunch of nonsense.

    “the tide of anti-government hostility”

    Could it be that this anti-government hostility is brought to the fore by a Government conducting a survey that seems to provide the basis for a racial spoils system in the United States. People are genuinely concerned about what the Government is going to do with this data in the short term and not what historians may find useful at some point in the future.

    “It’s a shame to say good-bye to people who are serving their country, too, if not in uniform.”

    You can’t be serious. Trying to establish some sort of equivalency between being in a rifle platoon in Afghanistan and trooping door to door in the US asking questions? If Jeffrey is a little foggy on this a quick trip down I-95 to Walter Reed hospital could make the distinction a little clearer for him.

    And finally:

    “This disservice to ordinary peoples’ lives and our collective social history, like past blind spots in the Census, shall not soon be forgotten and forgiven.”

    When and how was it that “past bind spots” have not been forgiven? Who is it in the future that isn’t going to forget and forgive that the Census didn’t have data on occupations. Aren’t there reams of data on occupations collected and published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics?

    The real story of the difficulties surrounding the 2010 isn’t any of this. It’s that the Census exposes that the Government has squandered the confidence and good will it once had and that Census workers are the ones that have to physically confront this. The Pew survey makes this clear.

  6. No Sense Census Says:

    Ignatius: Anyone that is against the census for not having information for future generations is as clueless as you are! The situation now is that money sent to the individual areas is dependant on needs right now. Your even mentioning the comparrison of our troops to enumerators does a diservice to our troops. I’m sure that our troops, (and I’ve been one), want any money sent by the government, to be spent fairly. That can only be done if people complete the census. Those that say privacy trumps accuracy are in a position to not worry who is sent to war or which city gets help for their homeless or seniors.

  7. No Sense Census Says:

    Ignatius: Your initials wouldn’t be GB would they?

  8. No Sense Census Says:

    To clarify the GB I meant was Glenn not George.