A simple count of everyone in the country. What could be so hard about that?
In the 23 times that count has been done in the United States since the Constitution first required it in 1790, it’s become clear that there is almost nothing simple about the decennial census. The announcement this week that at least a dozen states would sue the Trump administration for adding a question about citizenship status to the 2020 census is but the most recent fight over what seems like should be a straightforward mathematical enumeration, but has almost always been an emotional and political one.
“Of course it’s political, it is the underpinning of the entire political system,” says Margo Anderson, distinguished professor of history and urban studies at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and author of The American Census: A Social History. “It is always controversial.”
But if the fact that the census regularly results in a political fight is news to you, Anderson is not surprised. “Issues of race and region, growth and decline, equity and justice, have been fought out in census politics over the centuries,” she writes in the introduction to her book, “though because decades may pass between flare-ups of particular issues, the participants are often unaware of relevant earlier debate.”
In fact, the first political tussle over the census came during the writing of Article 1 in 1789. Southerners wanted slaves counted in their tally, as it would increase their numbers and their power, while Northerners wanted the opposite. The compromise was that slaves counted as 3/5 of a person, a choice that would haunt the nation well beyond the Civil War.
The Constitution only requires a population count, or “enumeration.” Which questions are asked during that count are decided by the census bureau, and over time form a snapshot of what issues felt important to the nation every 10 years. “The questions change with whatever is salient,” Anderson says.
In 1920, for instance, it felt time to
By 1940, there were questions trying to gauge the
In 2010, same-sex married couples were allowed
the census are caused by doubt about the results. Both George Washington and Alexander Hami