Re: 2020 US Census, post census thoughts #general

Lee Jaffe

A couple points about the census not already discussed.  

One of my first encounters with census data was hearing about a research project at U of Penn where they were mapping ethnicity/country of origin and occupation over several decades around the turn of the century to look at social and economic mobility.  This was in the mid-1970s when computers were still rare and the size of a room.  All the coding had to be done by hand and rendering the output in map form was a challenge the research team hadn't worked out.  I learned about this at a party of grad students when I happened to mention that my grandfather had told me he'd worked as a cigar maker and my classmate's husband told me that was a very common job for Jews in Philadelphia at that time. He proceeded to describe the research project and other early findings about the city's population they were gleaning from the census polls.   

I have wondered about the difference in data collected from the earlier handwritten, face-to-face enumerations to the current polls collected by mail or online.  The later ones will be easier to read -- less confusion about handwriting -- but I've always found something special when reading the handwritten entries. (Of course, there are the unfortunate mistakes, as well. My great grandmother Dora being transcribed Iona, for instance.)  In each case, I find myself wondering which family member answered the door and whether the variations in spelling and dates was due to their familiarity with English or the thickness of their accents.  In one case I discovered that the census taker was a relative. In those entries, where county of birth was asked, she entered Grodno, Russia, and Grodno was crossed out.  Ancestry's transcription only recorded Russia, but seeing the original entry is so much more revealing. One wonders how much will be lost to the Procrustean bed of automation.

Finally, as described by others, the Census has often asked a lot of questions that were unnecessary for its Constitutional mandate.  A simple enumeration of those living in a household  would suffice.   To this, I point out that the Census Bureau is under the Dept. of Commerce. But like others,  I appreciate that other data was reported. The question about number of children born/still living asked in 1900 and 1910, has helped solve more than one point of confusion about my great-grandparents and the next generation.  In the 1940 Census, they asked where you were living in 1935. My great uncle answered Norway: he'd actually been working for a Soviet newspaper in Moscow then, but knew better than tell a US official that.  But even the lie helps confirm the family legend about his exploits.

However, during the debate about adding citizenship questions to the 2020 Census, I came across an excellent article showing how those questions in the past polls were explicitly fueled by anti-immigrant movements.  The questions were put there as part of often-successful campaigns to limit further immigration. (It was irrefutably proved to be directed at voter suppression -- immigrants voting overwhelmingly Democrat -- in this Census.)  As genealogists, we may lament the sparser record collected now, but as children of those who were lucky enough to make it to safer shores (wherever you are) before reactionary forces slammed the door, I hope we can appreciate the context for the shorter questionnaire.

Lee Jaffe

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