The U.S. Census, Then And Now: Part One

It was spring 2009, and it was cold and damp outside. I was working for the U.S. Census Bureau in Manhattan in an operation called Address Canvassing. I was to record on a handheld computer the location of each building I came across with residential units along my assigned route. I was supposed to then create an accurate record of the inner layout of apartments, from the top floor to the basement.

I was inside a building on West 23rd Street, formerly an industrial loft building that had been converted into high-end residential apartments. There are dozens, if not hundreds of buildings like that throughout Chelsea, and many thousands across New York City.

It is almost impossible to gain entrance to these high-end buildings. In this case, I’d gotten lucky: a couple in deep, heated conversation opened the front door and exited the building, allowing me to step inside without a glance. I was walking down the hall on the first floor when a woman stepped out of her apartment. She was professionally dressed, in her early 30s, on her way to work. “What are you doing in here?” she demanded.

I explained that I was with the U.S. Census. “I need to get an accurate layout of the building so that next year we can send each unit a Census form.”

She looked at me in silence, then said, “That sounds creepy. Get out of here.” Which I did.

It occurred to me that this woman, an obviously well-educated, successful person, possibly did not have a clue as to what the Census is.

So, what is it?

Every 10 years, the Constitution mandates the counting, or enumeration, of everyone residing in the United States. These numbers form the bedrock of our representative form of government.

Many people are at least somewhat familiar with the beginning of the Constitution, the beginning of its preamble: “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union . . .”

Towards that goal of forming “a more perfect Union,” Article One, Section One creates the Senate and the House of Representatives.

That is followed by Article One, Section Two. Although only 293 words long, it lays out the mechanics on how all the people in the country, not just citizens, are to be represented.

Section Two also serves as a reminder of the painful history of America when it comes to race, and the role the Decennial Census played in that history. It tells us that the number of members of the House of Representatives from each state shall be determined by counting all residents in the nation and recording where they live. This counting must take place every 10 years.

Section Two also legitimized slavery.

The number of representatives from each state, Article Two says, would be based upon “their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” The phrase “all other persons” was a euphemism interchangeable with the word “slaves.”

The Annenberg Guide to the United States Constitution breaks down the meaning behind the words written over 200 years ago.

Slaves were property, and, as such, had no rights, especially not the right to vote. Free and indentured women and children also could not vote, but they were not property, and had to be counted.

The politics of race was injected into the Census right from its beginning.

The first census was conducted in 1790. The two most populous states at the time were Pennsylvania and Virginia. Virginia had over 450,000 free and indentured residents, while Pennsylvania had about 434,000. However, according to that census, Virginia also had 292,627 African and African American slaves, while Pennsylvania only 3737. If Virginia, and the other states that had large slave populations could count those slaves as individuals in the census, while still classifying them as property, political power in the newly formed House of Representatives would swing decisively to the slave states.

It was a political battle fought the year before during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia between representatives of the north and south, with the two sides reaching their Faustian-bargained mathematical formula for counting slaves, “three fifths of All other persons.” Seventy years later, that deal with the devil exploded into the Civil War.

After the Civil War, with the victorious northern states in control, slavery, along with any form of involuntary servitude, except for persons convicted of crimes, was made illegal by the passage at the end of 1865 of the 13th Amendment.

According to the Annenberg Guide, Congress quickly realized that the 13th amendment did not go far enough. In 1866, Congress sent to the states the 14th Amendment, which covered a broad array of issues regarding the rights of all persons in the country. It contained the following clause that has defined the goal of each Decennial Census since: “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.” The amendment was ratified by the states in 1868 and became and still is the law of the land.

While slavery had been seen as the economic cornerstone of the Antebellum South, immigration was the engine that drove the economy in the north.

From the beginning, immigrants were coming to the United States seeking opportunity. These immigrants were needed to build the country, to man its nascent factories and farms, to grow the nation out from the East Coast towards the west.

The framers of the Constitution, and the Congressional leaders who have followed since, specifically did not exclude non-citizen immigrant residents, no matter what their race, from the census count. They had plenty of opportunity to do so, first, at the Constitutional Convention in 1789 when they crafted Article Two, then when the census question was revisited by Congress in the 14th Amendment.

If you live anywhere in the United States, no matter what your citizenship status, you must be counted, according to the Constitution. You are represented in Congress, whether you are a citizen, or not. The Electoral College, America’s method of choosing its President, is weighted by the census numbers. Programs and federal monies are directed towards the states, and their cities, towns, and villages, based on those numbers.

If you live here, the Census Bureau is required to include you in its count.

This is the first installment of a series of articles on the U.S. Census, with a particular focus on the East End. T. E. McMorrow has worked in three Decennial Censuses and was a field operations supervisor covering a large swath of Manhattan during the 2010 Decennial.

If you’re part of the 2020 Decennial operation and wish to comment on the operation, excluding any personal information gathered, which must and is protected by law, you can reach the author at [email protected]

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