epresentatives ... shall be apportioned among the several states ..., according to their respective Numbers which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of Free Persons ... and excluding Indians not taxed, three?fifths of all other persons. ... The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of ten Years, in such manner as they shall by law direct.
Article I, section 2, Constitution of the United States of AmericaThe United States was the first nation in the world to institute a census and use it to apportion seats in the national legislature.
The framers of our constitution had to figure out how to mold the 13 colonies with very different religious and ethnic traditions into a nation-state, says Margo Anderson, a UWM professor of history and urban studies. They used the radical notion that power was grounded in the sovereignty of the people. Once they decided that conceptually, they had to allocate power among the states. They had to determine, Who and where are the people?
Anderson is a nationally recognized expert on the history of our countrys census. Reporters frequently contact her for background and interviews, and she served on a National Academy of Sciences committee that reviewed the 1990 census and recommended ways to make the census more accurate and cost effective. Anderson also has written several books, most recently Who Counts? The Politics of Census-Taking in Contemporary America (Russell Sage Foundation, 1999, updated in 2001) along with Stephen E. Fienberg.
Historical PerspectiveThe first census was taken in 1790, when George Washington was president. A group of about 650 U.S. marshals and their assistants traveled the countryside for 18 months, counting the population in cities and towns, frontier log cabins, and southern plantations. The first census determined the country had a population of 3.9 million, or about three fourths the size of the current Wisconsin population.
Fast forward to 2000. This time, it cost $7 billion to dispatch 500,000 enumerators, the largest peacetime workforce ever assembled, to count the 281.4 million people from remote Alaskan islands to Key West.
Anderson says some of the challenges faced in the first census remain todaynamely, how do we provide an accurate count, and what do you do with the numbers once youve gotten them.
The census is used to allocate seats in Congress, which means political power. Congress and the mediathe people who report on powerare interested in where the census has come over the past 200 years, she says. They are interested in this relationship between an instrument that was invented during the American Revolution and its ongoing influence on the American political system today.
This is what makes the American census different from other countries. We have dramatic population shifts that make the numbers much more important. In other countries, the population doesnt shift as much. We have used the census to manage change in a political system that was established to manage 3.9 million people on the east coast and still have it govern 281 million people spread over an entire continent 200 years later.
Anderson adds, Weve created a system that effectively means the original holders of power would lose it as the country expanded. New Yorkers, for example, conceded power to Wisconsinites as people moved West in the 19th century. We think of this as normal, yet it really is a rather extraordinary political invention, if you think about it.
Anderson and her students have spent hours poring over historical documents at the National Archives and reading newspapers from the past two centuries to track the impact of the census in the formation of American social policy.
She writes about how, after the Civil War, the South would reap a major political windfall from emancipation because slaves formerly were counted as three-fifths of a person. How in the 1920s, Congress restricted immigration in terms of the national origins of the population according to census data. What the role of the census was in identifying Japanese-Americans who were sent to internment camps during World War II. And how the Census Bureau supported the invention of one of the first computersthe UNIVACthat significantly reduced the counting time.
Thanks to computers and the tools of modern data analysis, the scope of the data also has expanded over the years. But Anderson says there is a ways to go, for she emphasizes that the census isnt as accurate as it could be. Cities and states have sued the Census Bureau in recent decades to press the bureau to remedy the differential undercount of the poor and minorities. Thus far, the courts have been reluctant to order a correction of the census and have deferred to congressional prerogatives and the technical expertise in the Census Bureau. Since Republicans and Democrats in Congress differ on what to do about the undercount, and neither side can craft a legislative solution, the issue remains.
Nevertheless, Anderson suggests that change in other areas is on the horizon. By 2010, the Census Bureau intends to replace the 58-question long form census questionnaire with the new American Community Survey (ACS), a rolling survey that would go to a random sample of 250,000 households each month across the decade, she says, noting that, if funded, the new survey will provide up-to-date population information throughout the decade.
As for the current census, the Web site (http://www.census.gov) has the latest information from 2000. There is currently great interest in the census results, but Anderson expects that with the pendulum-swing of interest in the census, people will soon lose interest for much of the remainder of the decade.
The census is an unobtrusive measurement tool. We expect people to put in 20 minutes of time per decade to recalibrate the political system. People just dont think about it. Its not like a presidential election with all the hoopla, she explains. Right now, were still in the thick of itreviewing the data, and all the state and local governments are drawing new legislative districts. But when theyre done, in most peoples minds, the census gets mothballed.
For Anderson, however, the information gained in the nations 22nd census is a living picture, like photographs fanned together to create the moving story of our nation.
She has several ongoing projects, including a historical review of federal statistical systems and an examination of the history of federal family household statistics. She and her students also are researching questions of other kinds of social measurement, from educational testing, to unemployment. They all have policy implications.
My role is to remind people why we collect the data we do, and explain what we do with it once weve got it, Anderson says.