The U.S. census provides an essential portrait of who we are as a people and how we live – from 1790 to the present.
The census gives us a person-by-person, family-by-family, street-by-street, community-by-community, state-by-state set of details about Americans. It is not just “America by the Numbers” – an impersonal compendium of population numbers for a statistical atlas.
Lopez used census information to look into her own family history — and what she found is pretty interesting. The 1900 Census reveals that her great-grandfather was the only boarder on a New York City block of Swedish, Irish and German immigrants. Most could speak English, read and write, but not everyone could.
The census, she writes, gives us details about how Americans lived — and protects privacy because the page-by-page details aren’t disclosed until 72 years later. Lopez encourages those who receive the in-depth American Community Survey to willingly fill it out:
If you get that longer questionnaire, which delves into 40 topic areas – including such things as income, citizenship, disability, plumbing and heating in the house, telephone service, family relationships and educational attainment – just remember that the information won’t be released until 2082. And when it is, it will provide indispensable information about technological change, standard of living and the work people do.
In the short-term, the 2010 Census is crucial for fairly appropriating funds and ensuring just representation in Congress. But for future historians and regular people who want to know their family’s past, it provides a comprehensive yet specific look at American society. The story of Lopez’s great-grandfather is just one of the millions that show the value of the census.