A Wee History of the Census

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Steven Taylor reports today on a boneheaded effort by House Republicans to kill off the American Community Survey, an annual program supported not just by mushy-headed liberals, but by conservative think tanks and the business community. It’s an invaluable source of information about the state of the country, but because it’s conducted by the Census Bureau it’s become a tea party bête noire. They’re convinced that because the Constitution calls for a decennial “enumeration,” then by God, that’s all they can do. They can count heads and nothing more. Anything else is an intolerable invasion of privacy.

I wonder if these guys have ever actually looked at an old census record? Taylor mentions the historical evidence that James Madison himself wanted to count much more than heads and that, in fact, more than a mere count has been done in every census since 1790. What’s more, the government has conducted other, more detailed censuses routinely since the early 19th century.

In any case, if you want to see a real invasion of privacy, check out this snippet from the 1860 census:

That record shows my great-grandfather Eli, my great-great-grandmother Lydia, and Eli’s brother Henry as head of family. And those two numbers? Those are the values of his real estate and his personal estate. In other words, my ancestors weren’t really all that rich, since $2,500 is only about $70,000 in today’s dollars, and there was probably a mortgage on the farm. Nonetheless, Uncle Sam demanded this information from everyone, and when I was looking at the recently released 1940 census I noted that they asked about annual income in that one. Other censuses have routinely asked for ages, birth dates, education levels, occupations, national origin of parents, whether you owned a radio, and so forth. This is nothing new. The tea partiers really need to learn a little history before they sail off on these crusades of theirs.


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