The Great Enumeration


In 1902 Congress at last passed legislation making the Census Bureau a permanent organization. Walter Willcox wrote an entertaining explanation of how this came about: “Director William R. Merriam handled Congress very cleverly; got a stunning group of girls on his staff; nearly all of them, no doubt, wanted to remain in Washington, and in the Census Office (at least until they got married). These girls, I was told, brought so much pressure on Congress that in 1902 … the office was made permanent, not for any scientific reason, but to keep the staff from being disbanded.”

For the first thirty years of this century, the Census Bureau proceeded with caution and limited its objectives, although there were further improvements in data processings A major innovation of the thirties, for instance, was the perfection of sampling, a technique based upon the theory of mathematical probability: finding a small group of individuals selected with precision, whose responses to questions provide an accurate profile for the population as a whole. By such means more information could be collected than before at reduced cost and without placing a great burden on respondents. Out of this work came a monthly report on unemployment, critically important during the New Deal, and still published as the Current Population Survey.


Self-enumeration was also tried, with poor results. Its time had not come. Immigration was still at full tide and a large population of new Americans had passed through our ports who could neither read nor write English. A demographic shift of historic proportions was recorded in 1920 and should not pass without notice. In that year the urban population became greater than the rural, amounting to about 51 per cent of the 106,000,000 Americans who were counted. Strangely enough, or rather by sheer accident, one of the most important events in U.S. history was not caught by the census: the Great Depression. This happened because the 1930 census was designed before the collapse, and by the next census the economy was rising to meet the demand for military hardware and our society was changed almost beyond recognition.


Some new questions m 1940 which the public was not prepared for raised a popular storm. Respondents were annoyed to be asked, “Do you have a toilet or privy?” or how much money they made. Information on salary and wages was badly needed, in the view of the government, to check on economic activity, current purchasing power, the extent of unemployment, the number of workers receiving substandard wages, and current hours of work. But Senator Charles W. Tobey denounced the questions relating to compensation both on the floor of the Senate and on the radio (more than 80 per cent of U.S. homes then had radios). The senator branded the inquiry as intolerable, un-American, unconstitutional, a violation of the Bill of Rights, and lacking legislative authority. Hearings were held on a resolution introduced by the New Hampshire senator, but the Senate leadership did not press for action on the floor.

Meanwhile, housewives in Olean, New York, adopted resolutions, organized a broom brigade, and threatened a march on Washington—where local merchants had launched an Anti-Snooping Club. Others who stood up to be counted against counting were the Defenders of America, the Fairfield (New Hampshire) Grange, Arthur Krock of the New York Times , the Sentinels of the Republic, Women Investors in America, the National Association of War Mothers, and a woman from Kenmore, New York, who said she knew of seven hundred women ready to go to jail rather than to reveal their incomes to the census taker. For a while it seemed that people might refuse to cooperate with the sixteenth census—though just those receiving five thousand dollars or more were asked only to say so; if they had other income all they had to say was whether it amounted to more than fifty dollars per year. Peace was restored when the objectors were permitted to report income information directly to Washington on a separate mail-in form. About two per cent of those answering chose this method.

The 1940 census also had to contend with a social phenomenon known as age heaping . This was the first population count taken after the passage of the Social Security Act. It turned up an extraordinary number of people who suddenly became sixty-five, the age of eligibility for Social Security benefits—many more than could reasonably have made it according to the demographic figures. It was also noticed that women in particular resisted entering the next decade of life. A large number were missing, for instance, from the agethirty group and peaked up, or heaped, at twenty-nine. Fifty-three-year-olds, it was also observed, strongly preferred a round number, like “fifty.”