Taking Stock of the Census

I have torn feelings about the Census, which will be conducted in the upcoming weeks. As a genealogist, I view the Census as a great resource that allows me to track my ancestors through the years, identify family members, and learn some basic information about their lives. Here's an example from Wisconsin in 1870 (click to expand):

Families #426 and #428 are related to me. The fact that these families are on the same Census page means they lived near each other. Eleven years after this census was taken, the man in line #14 married the woman in line #24; they later had a child who was my great-grandfather. I've seen this several times in my family: kids grow up near each other and eventually get married. This isn't too surprising, because many people back then didn't venture too far from where they were born. They were likely to find marriage partners in their hometown. It's still interesting to see them on the same Census page, though. It's neat to think that someday my descendants will be able to look me up in the Census.

As one who will be enumerated by the Census this year, I am not so enthused. For one, every commercial I see for the Census seems to be based on the theme of "make sure you get your fair share of government largess." The purpose of the Census was to levy taxes and determine the proper number of Congressional representatives, not to hand out money. Plus, is there really that big of a correlation between the Census and appropriation? It seems like powerful Congressmen and Senators, whether they be from Alaska, West Virginia, or New York, are able to get much more than their states' "fair" share of federal dollars.

Second is the evidence of the government's excessive interest in race that is given on the Census. It takes not one, but two questions on the 2010 form to satisfy government curiosity about your race and ethnicity. Here's their justification for this:
Race is key to implementing many federal laws and is needed to monitor compliance with the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. State governments use the data to determine congressional, state and local voting districts. Race data are also used to assess fairness of employment practices, to monitor racial disparities in characteristics such as health and education and to plan and obtain funds for public services.
When I think about the Voting Rights Act, I think of banning literacy tests and other blatant discrimination in voting. However, today this law is used to control Southern elections via preclearance long after the Jim Crow era ended, gerrymander to create majority-minority districts (because only blacks can represent blacks, only Hispanics can represent Hispanics, etc.), and require multilingual ballots.

The above paragraph also mentions "racial disparities in...education." On that note, consider this Wall Street Journal story:
The Obama administration plans to crack down on civil-rights infractions in school districts and university systems, including alleged disparities in the disciplining of white and black students.
Like what?
"African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely to be expelled as their white peers," Mr. Duncan plans to point out in his speech.
Is this because schools are racist? I am skeptical. Where might this policy lead? NRO explains:
The disparate-impact approach will also pressure school systems who are not engaged in actual discrimination to get their numbers right, so they won’t be investigated. And how will they do that? There are two ways: Either they will start to discipline, say, Asian students who are not really deserving of such discipline, or they will forego disciplining, say, black students who really ought to be disciplined. The former is merely unfair; the latter, which is the more likely outcome, will be disastrous for all children in the school system, of whatever color.
Not good. In response to this kind of thinking in the US, there are some on the conservative side suggesting a write-in answer for the race questions on the Census:
We should answer Question 9 by checking the last option — "Some other race" — and writing in "American." It's a truthful answer but at the same time is a way for ordinary citizens to express their rejection of unconstitutional racial classification schemes. In fact, "American" was the plurality ancestry selection for respondents to the 2000 census in four states and several hundred counties.

So remember: Question 9 — "Some other race" — "American". Pass it on.

I'm not sure if I'll do that or not. I don't know what kind of follow-up harassment I would receive for such a move. I could also try to leave that part blank. I'll have to think about it.

Do you have any strong feelings about the Census?


  1. Jason has been working for the Census. We're grateful that the list of questions is shorter. Our only strong feeling is that anyone who hate the Fed doesn't take it out on the Census workers. If someone doesn't like the questions, write your representatives and cut the enumerators some slack.

  2. I'm sure they emphasize the funding thing (whether it's real or not) because stupid people think the Census is stupid, and the ad people wanted to show that you should fill it out for your naked self-interest.

    I'm not sure about the race thing yet, because I haven't gotten my Census packet to look at it. I'm super excited about it, though. It's my first grown-up Census!

  3. I'm excited about my first adult census too but am a little sad that Nigel will be missing it by just a couple months.

  4. I think Jason would be a perfect sounding board for my census complaints.

    And Rachel, I read today that the Census is used to allocate $400 billion, which is a lot of cash, but a small percentage of the federal budget.