The Great Census Debate

March 18, 2010

So, our census arrived this week. As we answered the ten simple questions, I couldn’t help noting how, compared to past censuses, the Census of 2010 is going to reveal very little of who we are today.

For example, look at the censuses from the 1880-1900. According to the IPUMS USA, the Census of 1880 had 26 questions, including matters regarding occupation, health, education, and place of birth (even parents’ place of birth). The Census of 1900 eliminated the glaring health questions—like are you insane, idiotic or deaf and dumb?— but added four more in areas of citizenship and home ownership. The Census of 1890 is unavailable because most of it was destroyed in 1921 during a fire in the Commerce Building in Washington, D.C.

Because of these informative censuses, I know my grandmother’s mother Emma was one of twelve children born to Charles and Wilhelmine Sophia Carolina (Behrendt) Hornburg, both originally from Germany. Emma was born in Chicago in 1884, smack in the middle of Charles, Albert, Wilhem, Ella, Edward, Wilhelmine, Frank, George, Porter, Frieda and Bertha. These names vary in spelling from census to census because historically censuses were handwritten by enumerators who came door to door. In fact, the Census of 1900 lists the family name as Hornbusy.

I also know Emma’s father worked as a laborer, and at the age of 49 had lived in the U.S. for 41 years and rented, rather than owned, his home. Before marrying and while still living at home, Emma and her sisters worked as laundresses and housekeepers.

Interesting, yes? I think so.

So bear with me as I direct this from historical to slightly political. Because I thrill with the hunt of genealogy, I can’t help wondering what can possibly be the cause of the great debate of Census 2010?

My knowledge of government, politics and anything too brain-consuming is limited. But I love research (obviously), so I started digging.

According to Wikipedia, the U.S. has been taking censuses since 1790 and uses the dicennial count to “allocate Congressional seats (congressional apportionment), electoral votes and government program funding.”

The Census of 2010 has become a bipartisan hotbed that started already a year ago when Obama took office. According to Amy Sullivan in her Time magazine article, February 2009, the argument lies in how people are counted, which results in who gets counted.

“The battle over how to count people only makes sense when you look at what is at stake,” writes Sullivan. “The redistricting of local districts and reapportionment of congressional seats is based on census counts — a state could gain or lose seats based on its population, and shifts within a state determine plans for redrawing political boundaries.”

She also writes:

“Democrats have long charged that the undercounting of minorities and poor Americans prevents federal funding from reaching strapped communities. Meanwhile, Republicans argue that Democrats seek to boost numbers in order to create extra congressional districts in urban areas and to bring in more federal money for their constituencies.”

And then there are those who worry about privacy. Privacy from what, I wonder?

I personally don’t know anyone who’s been harmed by the government knowing how many people live at their house and how much they earn (as if the government doesn’t know this already…uh, federal income taxes?). With GPS, web tracking, business, bank, credit and medical records; not to mention those geeky teenage techies; do we really think we can hide anything from anyone wanting to “spy” on us?

Ah, the fun of politics. What’s your thought on this? Have you filled out your census? All of it?

How much will your descendants learn about you from the Census of 2010?

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4 Responses to “The Great Census Debate”

  1. Terri Says:

    Well, from the 2010 census, not much. There’s 2 of us. We’re white, male and female. Married.

  2. Ann Says:

    We have filled out our census! And I, too, am mystified by some of the kerfuffle the census has generated. We live in interesting times…

  3. Di Says:

    Years ago, I worked as a bank teller/customer service rep. Periodically we would run into customers who didn’t want to provide the necessary personal information. We were instructed to smile and say “I understand…”

    As soon as the customer left we would make a phone call and get all the information we needed. That was more than 15 years ago.

    We might as well accept our lives are an open book. It keeps us on the up and up:-)

  4. Bethany Says:

    My census is still in it’s envelope on my desk. Maybe someday I’ll get around to opening it…


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