Sunday, November 28, 1999

Old survey forms serve as snapshots of country

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As the country has grown in size and complexity, so has the form that tells us about ourselves.

        Census forms have been a part of American society every 10 years since 1790. Those early questionnaires now are icons, which can be vivid reminders of the growing pains of a young and middle-aged nation.

        The first census, for example, asked six questions, including the number of slaves in the household. The U.S. Census bureau counted an African-American or American Indian as 3/5 a person in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

        “We can learn as much about ourselves from the questions asked on the census forms as from the answers to the questions,” said Margo Anderson, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin who has written two books about the history of the census.

        Next year's census will count all of the diversity that is American society.

        For the first time, citizens filling out the census forms can check more than one category of race on the form. There are actually two questions dealing with race and ethnicity:

        Is this person Spanish/Hispanic/Latino?

        What is this person's race?

        In addition to white, African-American and American Indian or Alaska native, there are 11 other categories such as Chinese, native Hawaiian, Samoan and Asian Indian.

        “People in the past have said the forms did not allow them to denote all of their heritage,” said Kim Hunter, a media specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau. “We're just trying to get an accurate picture with what is happening on the American racial landscape.”

        The first form was used without change for six counts, until 1850, when the country had spread across half the continent.

        Some businesses, such as the insurance industry, were interested in getting more detailed information about mortality, according to David M. Pemberton, a historian with the U.S. Census Bureau.

        “There were far more cultures coming into the country at this time than at any point in our previous history, and those in government and academia realized that they needed to know more about our population than they did,” said Mr. Pemberton.

        Controversy followed the 1920 Census.

        No reapportionment of the seats in Congress — the primary reason for the decennial count — took place after the 1920 Census because it showed a massive population shift, from rural communities to bulging cities.

        A shift in the population, coupled with the 1910 law that fixed the number of congressional seats at 435, meant many in the House ran the risk of losing their jobs if reapportionment happened.

        “Prior to 1910, the number of seats in Congress was allowed to grow with each census so the winners and losers weren't so noticeable,” Mr. Pemberton said.

        “In 1920, we see far more political power flowing to urban areas, and that put many in the Congress at risk,” he said. “On the other hand, Congress looked pretty foolish after this, and they did reapportion after the 1930 Census.”


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