Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Big Count

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

The United States Constitution contains a mandate that the country count its citizens every ten years. The first national census was conducted in 1790, and the process has been repeated every ten years since that time. The earliest censuses contained only the names of the head of families along with the gender and age of other family members. In 1850 the census began listing every member of the family by name. The modern censuses contain a great deal of information about the country's population, including family migration history, occupation, salaries, size of house or apartment, and other demographic matter.

These old documents are very useful to genealogists and historians. A census is released to the public seventy-five years after it is completed. All of the censuses from 1790 through 1930 are open for public perusal and can be obtained at most libraries and many on-line sites. The only major census that is problematic is the one that was conducted in 1890. Those records were being stored in a warehouse in Pittsburg, Kansas, that fell victim to a fire. Nearly the entire census was lost in that disaster. Other records are available for that time period, and a smart librarian can be very useful in tracking them down.

The census is also a very hot political topic. The actual count determines whether states gain or lose Congressional districts and have a big impact on how federal dollars are distributed. Every political entity wants to make sure that they are accurately counted. Historically, minority groups have been under-counted. There were certain areas that census takers feared to enter, and many people who had good reason to fear government intruders were reluctant to share information. In 2000 there was an effort to use a statistical process to estimate the under-counts, but certain parties in Congress (primarily Republicans) fought the process and would accept noting other than actual head counts. It wasn't that they didn't trust statistics so much as it was that they benefited politically from minority under-counts.

This year the folks at the U.S. Bureau of the Census have initiated some precautions to ensure a more accurate count of minorities, particularly Hispanics. The census countered over 35 million Hispanics in the U.S. in 2000, and many felt that was a serious under-count. By 2007, the Hispanic population was estimated at nearly 45 million.

So, enter the anti-immigration groups. They don't mind a fair count because they can use that as ammunition to keep the know-nothings stirred up. But they do get upset when political entities suspend immigration raids during the time the census is being taken. They also object to the Census Bureau's practice of counting illegal aliens - who do reside in this country and hence meet the Constitutional mandate for being counted.

This year the Census Bureau has enlisted Hispanic cultural groups and Spanish media to help promote and explain the census process. They will be using public service announcements, education, and public meetings to explain the importance of getting an accurate count, showing the ways that a good count can benefit the local communities.

Some of the census is taken by door-to-door census takers, but a majority of it is done through forms that are mailed to households. This year - for the first time, the census bureau will be sending out bilingual forms - 13 million of them. They are also actively trying to hire census takers who are bilingual. The goal is to have a census taker at the door who is a reflection of the person being interviewed.

Some people don't like it, but America is an inclusive country. We are many people from many backgrounds formed into one proud nation. Our diversity is our strength. We must all be counted so that we can ensure that all of our citizens share equally in that strength.

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