Review | The messy, monumental task of conducting the U.S. census


The U.S. census has always seemed to me a bit like the Bible: an honorable effort to relay powerfully influential information, yet destined never to be 100 percent accurate. Like the Bible, the census is vulnerable to the insufficiencies of language and the human compulsion to put one’s own stamp on events.

In Dan Bouk’s new book, “Democracy’s Data,” any notion of the U.S. census as flawless accounting evaporates within pages and stays gone right up to the end. There, the author writes that he laughed out loud at the “absurd precision” of the Census Bureau’s announcement of the results of its 2020 population count: 331,449,281.

Yet none of that is to suggest that Bouk lacks reverence for the work of the Census Bureau. On the contrary, the historian (he also has a degree in computational mathematics) writes with genuine, even geeky affection for his subject. “I believe in the census, the way I believe in democracy — in part because in the United States, the census and democracy are intimately intertwined,” Bouk writes. “As long as the people control their own enumeration, then the quest to count each person is one of the purest expressions of democratic values.”

The book’s content supports its subtitle, “The Hidden Stories in the U.S. Census and How to Read Them.” These stories shine light on a part of government that many of us seldom think about. They introduce readers to census designers, enumerators (who slog door to door to do the count) and ordinary Americans whose lives are recorded in the data.

The core purpose of the census is to tally the population for the apportionment of seats in Congress. But as we see, the process has long been vulnerable to those who would bend the survey to meet goals rooted in racism, ignorance or lust for power. Bouk explores these in a spirit of wanting to improve a beloved institution.

The first U.S. census was conducted in 1790. In accordance with the Constitution, the national count has been done every 10 years since then; 2020 was the most recent. General results are released soon after the counts are done, but full reports that include individuals’ names and other detailed information are not released until 72 years later. When Bouk was doing his research, 1940 was the most recent decennial census for which full data was available. (Full data for 1950 was released in April 2022.)

Much of his storytelling, then, is anchored in 1940, when the country was still reeling from the Great Depression and about to be swept up in World War II, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt was busy being elected to a third term. Strictly speaking, census-taking might have operated apart from these factors, but counting the populace has never been a simple math problem. As Bouk points out throughout the book, there are consequences to who does and does not get counted, and how the counted are named and categorized. A meeting of a group Bouk calls “the Question Men” provides a compelling illustration of the vigorous debates that influenced which questions were included in the 1940 Census form. At that time, the printed forms measured 23 3/4 inches by 12 1/5 inches and had room for 32 columns, for noting answers to 32 questions. As Bouk puts it, “Asking a new question meant adding a new column, which meant that some other question, some other column, had to go.”

The Question Men were leaders of government agencies and captains of industry who convened in March 1939 to debate what those questions should be. There were advocates for almost any fact of American life one could think to enumerate: disabilities, religious affiliations, occupations and housing details. Demographer Frank W. Notestein, director of the Office of Population Research at Princeton University, hoped that the census might reveal which groups were “not bearing their fair share of offspring.” And a proposed question about income fed passionate anti-government political rhetoric that at one point included the labeling of New Deal advocates as “fake Americans.” Sound familiar?

The questions that survived had the power to shape policy, yet those being counted also attempted to flex their muscles. Bouk spends a considerable amount of time on the tension between efforts to wedge people into sometimes absurd categories and the efforts of individuals to resist being incorrectly labeled.

There have been long-standing indications that the census undercounts Black people, flawed data that at one point was used to advance a false narrative that they were incapable of thriving in post-Civil War America. Bouk also includes an anecdote involving a family of Americans of Mexican descent being tallied as racially “Mexican,” only to be changed to racially “White” when the form arrived at the Census Bureau. Murkiness around the word “partner” allowed for various interpretations, depending on who was doing the tallying, and the census-taker — not the person whose life was being described on the sheet — was typically the one making the call.

Among the most heartbreaking examples of census work put to ill use was when the federal government broke its promise never to use census data against its citizens. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it did just that — mining records for information about where to find those who were Japanese (and Japanese American) to oust them from their homes and jobs and send them to internment camps.

Solid storytelling chops and a friendly tone help Bouk convince readers who might question just how interesting a book about the census can be. Surprise — it can be! In the hands of someone who understands it, the census is a mirror of the country’s ideals, values, flaws and attributes.

Bouk uncovers the great paradox about the decennial count: that it is an impossibly large and messy task, but also an awe-inspiring achievement. As he puts it, “Every census is a remarkable accomplishment, a glorious dream, and a serious slog.” He wants us to believe that achieving a better census is possible, and to care whether it improves. “Democracy’s Data” makes the case.

Karen Sandstrom is a freelance writer in Cleveland.

The Hidden Stories in the U.S. Census and How to Read Them

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