New Orleans For a long time a country’s ability to consistently and accurately conduct a census has been a mark not only of modernity, but of civilization itself and a country’s standing in the world. For many years, Australia and the United States have been bellwethers in creating the standards for the enumeration of its people. The 2020 census is expected to cost the US government a total of $16 billion, or $48 for each one of the 330 million of us it will attempt to count. With hardly a month left according to the speedup timetable, there are still 38 million to count, while the bureau is losing one of every three hires as counters and doing inaccurate drive-by tallies in neighborhoods seen as virus hotspots. What could go wrong? Seemingly, everything.
Reading The Sum of The People, both a history and an analysis of census taking by Andrew Whitby was helpful in providing some background and perspective on the always difficult and usually politicized nature of the census, even though we are setting new standards for both right now.
Whitby shares some fascinating factoids as well to provide some context:
- If you want to think of the census as a palliative for the pandemic, the bible in Exodus notes the census “should be of those age twenty and older. Each person should pay, as a “ransom for his life,” a sum of half a shekel, so that “no plague will come on them.”
- The census is enshrined in the US Constitution as a requirement that every ten years every person living in the country is counted. George Washington, the first US president, managed after many delays, to report the results of the first census in October 1791 to Congress: 3,929,214.45. We’re now approaching one-hundred times that number 230 years later.
- The point 45, less than a full person, comes from the compromise in how to count slaves as less than a full person, but racism continued to mark the census as it likely does now, “In the numerical census of 1840, precious column space was saved by collecting less detail on nonwhites—only six age categories for free colored people, for example, instead of thirteen for white people.”
Now, the Census has put out vivid posters that also say that you can call in your information, but of course there was no phone number on the poster. Filling out the form where my parents lived, the code wouldn’t let me say it was empty. The second postcard exhorting me to fill out the form, that I had tried earlier, finally gave me a new number so I could say it was empty. Our Australian shepherd kept one census taker driving by in a van at bay, who had more than enough time to chat. Earlier, I had to correct a team of two elderly workers who wanted to say that the house next door to me in New Orleans was recorded empty though I could attest that a family of five had lived next door for many years now. I have a bad feeling this could all turn out even worse than we are imagining.
Whitby notes in his book, “…for accuracy, censuses should be timed with periods of stability.” That’s the lesson from history, and we are in a time now in the US which defines instability.
Of course, as the president would probably note, it could be worse. “Lebanon is the prodigal son of global census taking. Its last full count was in 1932, under French rule… The belief that vexes Lebanon, that each census should be followed by a redistribution of political power, is an essentially American idea.”
I’ll have to write Whitby that in future editions he may have to add a correction to make that statement past tense saying that “redistribution of political power, was an essentially American idea,” since the powers that be seem determined to thwart whatever redistribution of power a full and accurate count would yield now.