The Great Enumeration


Preparations for the twentieth census are very nearly complete as this is written. In April, 1978, the doit-yourself mail-back system was tested in Richmond, Virginia, and in two adjacent counties. The door-to-door technique for use in sparsely settled regions was rehearsed in two counties in the southwest corner of Colorado. And in September a census was conducted south of Houston Street in the Borough of Manhattan, New York City, where special inner-city problems arise because of the mixture of racial and ethnic groups. These programs, known as the “1978 Dress Rehearsal Census,” simulated conditions the bureau would face in the next great national head count.

The work horse will be the mail-back system, but the foot canvassers will still be on duty—two hundred and twenty thousand of them directed by twenty-two thousand crew leaders—ready to call upon delinquent or tardy households as well as rural areas and “Special Places,” such as convents, nursing homes, and jails. Strenuous efforts will be made to avoid undercounting blacks, to find citizens who are on the lam, people engaged in illegal activities, human waifs, owners of 3,000,000 second homes, and nonconformists who are not interested in helping keep track of the world they have rejected.

The bureau will find that there are about 2,000,000 adults who are not married but share the same living quarters. The census people allow the respondents considerable latitude in describing their living arrangements and have gone out of their way to point out that there are a number of reasons for such ménages beside the one that first comes to mind. Arthur Norton, a Census Bureau population expert, put it this way: “Unrelated men and women who are sharing living quarters with someone of the opposite sex are not necessarily shacking up,” and added that the government does its best to stay out of people’s personal business. So the 1980 checklist, reflecting the marked extension of such living patterns, will provide for a discreet entry as “partner” or “roommate.” No question will be asked next time around about the ownership of a television set for the same reason there is no inquiry about a kitchen sink—everybody is assumed to have one.

Already it is possible to see beyond 1980. Legislation now on the books requires a national inventory in 1985 and every mid-decade thereafter, an idea first proposed to Congress by President U. S. Grant in 1872. The quinary count is not intended to duplicate the historic decennial census of the “zero” years in apportioning the House of Representatives but simply to bring up to date information on changing patterns and totals to guide the distribution of funds and to respond to the needs of private data users who require updated figures more often than once in ten years.


Even now the bureau, looking ahead, has a pretty good idea of some of the shifts and changes that will affect political power and the quality of life in the early years of the country’s third century; it is just as well, for no matter how complex the world becomes, the mission of the census remains as simple and as profound as it has been for almost two hundred years: to find out how things are going in America.