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The Great Enumeration
“If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, “said Abraham Lincoln, “we could better judge what to do, and haw to do it. “For nearly two hundred years, the United States Census has been trying to find out.
December 1979 | Volume 31, Issue 1
Some people were not convinced. The inner-city residents of Trenton, New Jersey, and North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for example, were reluctant to open their doors or mouths to any caller representing the government, revealing their strong aversion to being listed in any government records. New Haven, Connecticut, respondents balked at answering a question as to “all persons who stayed here overnight on Tuesday.” A Wisconsin assemblyman urged his constituents to reject all questions other than name, address, sex, and marital status, and newspaper advertisements appearing in Madison just before Census Day urged noncompliance. There was also resistance in South Carolina. The prevailing mood there disturbed some enumerators enough to cause resignations. In fact, there was a national debate carried on in and out of Congress on individual privacy versus public need, and on the obligations which lay upon government after it came into possession of personal knowledge. In the end, however, the legal relationship of each citizen to the Census Bureau remained the same: answering the population and housing questions was mandatory.
Widespread publicity explaining the need for the data and emphasizing the confidentiality of the responses quieted down the incipient rebellion. Five court cases went to trial, but in the end a high level of compliance was obtained throughout the nation. Federal law states that information furnished to the Census Bureau can be used for statistical purposes only and not in any manner that could lead to the discovery of the identity of any person or business firm. Employees of the bureau are under oath to obey the Constitution and the law. They can be fined one thousand dollars for every violation and sent to prison for up to two years, but no cases have been proved or even prosecuted under the present statute governing the census.
There is one exception to absolute confidentiality. An individual who wishes to prove that he was born, and when and where, can for a small fee get the evidence from the bureau. Historians, genealogists, all who are interested in family history, have free access to the first ten censuses (1790-1880), except those few state tallies which no longer exist. The records for 1900 are available for restricted use. The 1890 schedules were destroyed by fire. Those for 1910 and after are closed, though Congress has not said that census confidentiality as stated in Title 13, United States Code, runs in perpetuity. Yet it is extremely unlikely that Congress would ever amend Title 13 except to make historical census data available to scholars at some remote future time. The Bureau of the Census thinks a century would be about right.
The final population count for 1970 was 203,184,772, and this great undertaking produced two thousand separate reports—as well as some responses that revealed changing social attitudes. One woman wrote to the Secretary of Commerce to complain that a married woman was required to identify herself as “wife of the head” though there was no box for “husband of the head.” In the next census the question as to who is “head” will be deleted. James Madison had proposed questions about occupations in 1790 but the suggestion was not acted upon at that time. But by 1970 the focus was upon the economic life of the nation, and twenty-three thousand occupations and nineteen thousand different industries had been classified by the Census Bureau.
Citizens of voting age have been moving around a lot since 1970, making the apportionment for representation in Congress, as well as that of local and state legislatures, out of date. Blacks are migrating away from the Northeast, many returning to the South. Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana are gaining rapidly in population. Florida and Arizona are gaining, too, but at a slower rate. Six congressional districts now have more voters than the average district has people. The census of 1980 will adjust these matters, and not least among its functions will be providing new guidelines for the distribution of billions of dollars annually to states, counties, and cities through federal revenue-sharing programs as well as helping local government entities to plan new schools and to locate transportation systems, housing programs, daycare centers, and job-training centers.
A considerable change in the political landscape of the House may be expected. Losers, if present estimates hold, will be Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, South Dakota. Winners will be Arizona, California, Florida, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah. By constitutional mandate, the census results will go to the President by January 1,1981, then to the House of Representatives, which will reapportion its 435 seats and direct the state legislatures to redraw congressional district lines according to population shifts and in keeping with the Supreme Court’s 1965 one-man, one-vote ruling.