Counting on the Census

Counting on the Census

With a count of 331,449,281 residents, the 24th decennial Census of the United States is beginning to release the newest data about the current demographics of our country.  This procedure, a Constitutionally-mandated enumeration of the citizens and residents of the country, is a vital research tool – but it is also a source of conflict and controversy.  Since many consequential issues hinge on the results of the Census – principally the apportionment of representatives in the Congress and funding for government programs that include roads, schools, health, and emergency services – it has become a flashpoint for competing (and highly politicized) ideologies.

The Census has long been plagued by controversy.  Both George Washington and Thomas Jeffeson thought the original 1790 Census was significantly undercounted, a criticism of almost every subsequent survey; and there are frequent arguments about methodology (such as taking a direct headcount vs. using statistical sampling).  This time, one controversy regarded re-implementing a question asking about citizenship status (the question was eventually left off the final Census).  Other controversies included the ever-expanding cost (the 2010 Census cost $13 billion and required about half a million temporary workers), the new option for giving online responses (inviting the threat of hacking), and issues with personal privacy and rising distrust of governmental institutions.

Who is counted, where, and why can change the relative power of states or counties.  The citizenship question was criticized for potentially depressing the count of undocumented immigrants (which would also reduce the power, prestige, and budgets of urban areas).  Counting prisoners where they are in jail, vs. where they lived before incarceration, is also feared to skew representation (and the power that comes with it) to rural areas where the prisons are often located.  Adding to the difficulty, the COVID-19 pandemic also created another layer of complexity in collecting the data.

Changing state populations change the amount of elected officials in the U.S. House of Representatives.  Indiana will maintain its current slate of nine representatives, but most of its neighbors – Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan – will lose representation.  This will trigger new district maps, created by the state governments currently in power to determine which parts of the state will elect each remaining representative.  In a process called gerrymandering, partisan officials draw the lines to super-concentrate citizens predisposed to their political opponents in a few districts, leaving most districts with a comfortable but not overwhelming majority of their supporters.  This reinforces those currently in power (both between and within political parties) and reduces the number of truly competative locales for future elections (such as the one coming up in 2022).

Issues surrounding the Census will continue to persist, and are worthy of scholarly attention.  The best source of information is the website of the Census Bureau itself, although there are many other library resources.  Many news sources have been linked above, and in addition, current events databases like CQ Researcher have excellent articles about issues and controversies related to the Census.  Additionally, books like Envisioning the 2020 Census or Guide to the Census by Frank Bass are great tools.  By law, Census results are currently confidential for 72 years (meaning your completed census form will not be publicly accessible until 2092), but older Censuses (up through 1940) can be accessed through HeritageQuest – these can yield a wealth of demographic and genealogical data.

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