Census History and 20th-Century Firsts
The census has grown with the country
by David Johnson
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Today, with its use of the Internet, sophisticated computers, and advanced statistical analysis, the census is more accurate and comprehensive than ever.
1990 Census Criticized
The Census Bureau was heavily criticized following the 1990 census, which missed an estimated 8.4 million people and counted some 4.4 million people twice.
An additional 13 million people were counted in the wrong place, made up, or included by mistake. Part of the problem has been the declining levels of census participation.
Some 30 million households did not respond, partly because they may not have been able to read English.
- Between 1790 and 1840 the number of census questions ballooned from six to over 70.
- In 1850 Congress revised the process, including questions on national birth and occupation and establishing a Census Office.
- After the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment abolished the three-fifths compromise.
- The Fourteenth Amendment sought to use the census to enforce the enfranchisement of freed blacks. Adult male citizens who were denied voting rights would affect an individual state's representation.
- The census of 1890 was the first to be tabulated by machine.
- The 1920 census indicated that for the first time more Americans lived in cities than rural areas.
- During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the census department began measuring unemployment and income.
- The first non-defense computer was developed to tabulate the 1950 census.
- In the 1962 Baker vs. Carr decision, the U.S. Supreme Court made its famous "one man one vote" ruling, requiring that legislative boundaries in each state must also contain equal populations.
- Mail-in forms took precedence over door-to-door enumerators in 1970.
- In January 1999, the Supreme Court ruled that statistical sampling—which allows for the estimation of certain populations, such as the homeless or minorities—could not be used to redistribute Congressional seats.
Employing some 860,000 temporary workers and costing $6 billion, Census 2000 is the largest peacetime mobilization of resources and personnel. Despite concerns that completing the count too quickly could affect accuracy, Census 2000 has generally gone relatively smoothly.
The Census Bureau expects the state population count to be completed by Dec. 31, 2000. The population of a given state or municipality is the basis for the distribution of an estimated $185 billion in federal funds, for everything from schools, highway and mass transit, aid to the elderly, and hospitals, to name a few.
In an effort to reach everyone, Census 2000 used forms printed in six languages: English, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, spoken in the Philippines.
Racial information will include 63 categories of race in combination with various Hispanic designations, making a total of 126 acknowledged racial identities.
In response to critics who charge that too much attention is paid to racial categorizing, officials point out that all censuses since the first survey in 1790 have included a question on race.