As we saw in earlier entries, some of the things we associate today with government—public transit, clean drinking water, waste disposal and public sanitation, public schools, police and public safety, and fire safety and prevention—did not start out as government responsibilities. They were the work of private companies or property owners and became government responsibilities because governments could do them cheaper and better. In most cases, companies and individuals happily gave them up.
But the U.S. Census wasn’t like that. It was always intended to be a service of the federal government. In fact, it’s in the Constitution. The reason is simple. Representative democracy depends on an accurate count of people. And, in looking around, the authors of the Constitution saw that only a national government could do this work accurately and honestly.
Why is it so important to count people? The House of Representatives is apportioned among the states according to population, as is to a lesser degree the Electoral College, which selects presidents. This means every 10 years some states lose representation; some states gain it. (After the 2010 census, for example, Ohio and New York lost two representatives each; Texas gained four.)
The states could not be trusted to count their residents; they have too much at stake in the outcome. There were no private companies capable of the job when the Constitution took effect in 1788. Thus, it fell to the newly created federal government.
So beginning in 1790 and continuing every decade since, the federal government has counted every person living in the United States and reported the results to the states and the public. (Until the Civil War, Census takers counted enslaved people for purposes of representation as “three-fifths” the value of a free person. With the end of slavery, this disgraceful bit of accounting ceased.)
The story of the Census, then, is not a mystery about its origins. Rather, it’s about its expanded uses, and how those uses have helped us understand America. And that’s because the Census is much more than a headcount. It’s a snapshot of who we are, what we do, how we live, even how we move around. It’s also a motion picture, in the sense that you can use Census numbers over time to see how we’ve changed and make educated guesses about where we’re headed. This information is vital for government planners, business executives, scholars, and nonprofits.
So the first thing to know in understanding the Census is that it isn’t a single thing; it’s a collection of things. There’s the “decennial census,” which counts population and housing and reports on demographics such as age, race, and gender. (This is the census used in apportioning the House of Representatives.) But there’s also an “economic census” that measures the economy every five years; a “census of government” that measures the number and size of state and local governments; and a variety of surveys and projections that look at everything from poverty and crime to insurance coverage.
These additional censuses started early. In 1810, Congress added a census on manufacturing. Later it added questions about churches, poverty, and taxes. And it kept adding questions. By 1880 so many questions were asked that it took nearly a decade to calculate and publish the results. (In 1890 the first tabulating machines were used in the Census, reducing the number crunching from 10 years to two and a half. Ever since, the Census has been a source of computer technology breakthroughs.)
Governments needed the additional information to govern effectively. If a president wanted to lower trade barriers and feared it might hurt manufacturing, it was useful to know how previous changes in tariffs had affected manufacturing. And for that, you needed to know what was made and sold year by year.
It didn’t take long for businesses to make use of these numbers as well. Investments are basically bets on the future, so investors naturally wanted to know if their bets were safe. Should we place stores in cities or suburbs? Sunbelt states or northern states? Should we add a line of ethnic foods to our grocery shelves in Minneapolis? Should we build housing for retirees in San Diego? The Census can help businesses answer these questions.
Can’t private research companies also answer these questions? They can and some do. But private research firms almost always begin with Census data. Why? Because the Census is the “gold standard” for demographic research. And that’s because it is both comprehensive (it measures a lot of things) and trustworthy (it measures them accurately).
It’s worthwhile asking why are the Census’s data so trusted. And here we return to the core strengths of government:
- Governments are very good at doing the same things over and over, slowly improving along the way (see our entries on building codes and inspections and fire safety and protection). The federal government has run the Census for two centuries, gradually improving data and methods along the way.
- Governments tend to be steadfast, meaning they don’t jump in and out of services the way a private business does. (IBM was a pioneer in making personal computers, then walked away from the business. Ford Motor Co. had big plans for making airplanes, then gave it up.) The federal government has no intention of abandoning its Census responsibilities.
- Governments are good at protecting confidential information, which makes people more willing to cooperate in sharing details about themselves. Google and Facebook will sell personal information to anyone with a bank account and a semi-legitimate reason. The IRS won’t give up your income or tax secrets without a court order. As for individual Census data, like your name, age, family members, and place of residence, these details are protected for 72 years, meaning the answers you gave in 2020 won’t be available for genealogists tracing family trees until 2092.
- Governments often approach their work in a comprehensive way. We saw that in fire protection, where governments combined infrastructure, building codes, and emergency-response personnel to reduce the threat of urban fire. The Census is nearly as comprehensive as it seeks information, using everything from online forms to census takers called “enumerators” who show up if no one in a house or apartment responds to the mailings. No one home? The enumerators will question the neighbors. And they’ll keep coming back until they get the answers they need. No private research company could or would do all these things.
- Governments bring with them the force of law. The threat that you could be fined or jailed for not answering a Census form truthfully makes the information more trustworthy. (Same thing applies to courtroom testimony and tax returns.) No one has been hauled into court for not answering Census questions since 1970. Still, the law is on the books, and most people understand that filling out Census forms is an obligation, not an option. Lie to a private researcher? That’s between you and your conscience.
What does this mean? Two things. First, it means that Americans have high-quality, in-depth information with which to understand what is happening around us—a gold mine of data that’s made available without charge to anyone who needs it. It is impossible to imagine our economy or governments operating successfully without what the Census makes known.
Second, it shows us once again that governments can do some things better than private or nonprofit organizations. The Census is one. And for that, we can thank government.
Give the credit to: federal government
Photo by K-State Research and Extension licensed under Creative Commons.