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Trump isn’t the first president to politicize the census

Trump isn’t the first president to politicize the census

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.”

Mandated by Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, the census decides the population of each state, which in turn determines how much representation that state gets in the House of Representatives, how many votes each state has in the Electoral College, and what percentage of federal funds a state receives. A change in a state’s population, therefore, results directly in a gain or loss in that state’s political and economic clout.

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 take out the question about whether each household member had served in the Union or Confederate armed forces. That same year, questions were added that asked each U.S. resident when they naturalized, as well as for their own mother tongue and those of their parents.

By 1940, there were questions trying to gauge the impact of the Depression, asking about the need for housing, employment and unemployment, income and how often and where a family had moved in search of work.

In 2010, same-sex married couples were allowed for the first time to mark their spouse as “husband” or “wife” on a census form, and a box for “unmarried partner” was also available.

 the census are caused by doubt about the results. Both George Washington and Alexander Hami

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