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The census is a fact of American life as certain as death or taxes. It’s there in Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution. To determine representation in Congress (and taxes!), the government must count its citizens every 10 years.
This has always been a process prone to politics and error. And it has reflected national preoccupations every decade it’s been conducted.
The first census asked for a count of four categories of free people (white males over 16, white males under 16, white women, all others) and one category of enslaved people. Reportedly, Thomas Jefferson, who oversaw the census as secretary of state, thought the final count was artificially low.
In the century that followed, as immigration increased, the nation industrialized and urban poverty grew, the census started to include questions about socioeconomics, work, age of marriage and nations of origin. In reaction to the 1920 census showing that significant numbers of rural southerners had moved to northern cities, southern lawmakers blocked reapportionment for the coming decade.
Some things never change. The inclusion of a question about respondents’ citizenship status is currently the main political controversy of the 2020 census. There are concerns that the question will stifle immigrants’ response, leading to them not being counted and giving an edge to the GOP in the next round of redistricting (a process the courts may soon make less political than it already is). The question has already prompted a lawsuit from California.
The questions over questions don’t stop there. Officials are debating just how much the government should ask about sexual orientation and gender identity, too.
This is happening at a time when Americans have less trust in their government than almost any time in the 60 years.
And Americans are also losing trust in the social networks they’ve given heaps of personal information to in the last ten years, now that it’s been revealed just what can happen with the data falls into the wrong hands.
A good census is crucial to the national interest. But is there enough trust to get a good count?
- John H. Thompson Former director, U.S. Census Bureau
- Dante Chinni Director of the American Communities Project at the George Washington University; data journalist for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal; author of "Our Patchwork Nation"; @Dchinni
- Terri Ann Lowenthal Census expert and consultant; former co-director of The Census Project; and former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee from 1987-94
- Steven Camarota Director of research, Center for Immigration Studies, an organization that supports allowing fewer immigrants into the country; @wwwCISorg
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