Census: A Revolutionary Idea, Plus Reasons to be Counted

Census: A Revolutionary Idea, Plus Reasons to be Counted

(Kurt Metzger, March 26, 2020)

The census is as old as America. And so are controversies about it.

The history of the census in the United States charts the relationship between the government and its citizenry, ideas about race and identity, in what makes an individual an American – and all the ways a person can count.

Indeed, the census played a significant role in the country’s founding ideologies. Grievances over a lack of colonial representation in British Parliament had spurred the American Revolution, and afterwards, delegates from the recently-independent states were determined that in their new government, power would be distributed more fairly among the people.

Two of the Revolution’s most prominent issues—taxation and representation— were assigned according to a simple population count and enshrined in the Constitution.

Since the first census after the American Revolution was taken in 1790, under Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson however, the need for useful information about the United States’ population and economy became increasingly evident.

As the country changed in the decades that followed, so did the census.

The first census sorted population into “free white males and females,” “other free persons” and “slaves.” Census takers determined the races of Americans they counted until 1950, and during the Jim Crow era sought to identify specific levels of African ancestry or “black blood.” Since 1960, Americans could choose their own race. In 2000, they could identify as multiracial.

What hasn’t changed is the confidentiality of information collected by the census – and its vitality to governments, businesses and individuals. That’s why Detroit, Michigan, and other governments are making full-court presses to ensure accurate counts next year. Because the census determines:

Political representation: All levels from Congress to council districts utilize population counts for determining their boundaries. Michigan stands to lose one of its 14 congressional seats if current census estimates hold.

Federal funding: Each person counted (or missed) is estimated to be worth about $1,800 per year, through 16 federal programs such as Medicaid, nutrition assistance and Section 8 housing vouchers. Their total worth: $675 billion nationwide.

Local government funding: Just as federal money flows to states based on census counts, money also flows to communities from the state. A host of programs, from housing and transportation to recreation and education, rely on population counts from the census.

Business Location Decisions: Census data are important components of decision-making when identifying where to locate near needed workforce, customers, etc.

Community Agencies and Nonprofits – Whether one is seeking a grant or offering one, there is the requirement for a needs statement, where census data are used to identify populations and areas of need, as well as to measure the program outcomes derived from that grant.

Foundations and Other Funders – Those offering money use census data to determine program needs, and to assess the grant requests they receive.

Schools – The Census Bureau has created a Statistics in Schools program that utilizes census data to teach math, social studies, government, etc.

Individuals – Last, but not least, census data provide a treasure trove of information for the naturally curious. The greatest use is in genealogical pursuits, as actual census records are released to the public after 72 years. The 1940 records are the latest to be available, with 1950 coming on line in two more years.

Get more information and do your part at https://www.census.gov/.

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