Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Census Matters -- And It's Not a Government Plot

It wasn't too long ago that U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann was telling people not to cooperate with the 2010 census because it was a government plot.

Now it turns out the loony Minnesota Republican has figured out she might lose her seat in Congress if her constituents take her advice. That's because census results are used to allocate seats in Congress, which are based on population, and Minnesota is on the verge of losing one of its seats -- and it very well might be Bachmann's seat that disappears.

Beyond that, federal funds for many programs are allocated based on population so it's important for all states that their citizens fill out the census forms.

And no, it's not a socialist Obama plot to collect information and use it to control the public. The U.S. Constitution requires the census be done every 10 years, and while the initial purpose might have been to figure out how many military-age males the nation had, it quickly became useful for other purposes.

By the late 19th century, the government was asking where individuals were born, whether they spoke English, whether they were U.S. citizens, whether they could read or write, and so on. If an individual was a farmer, the government wanted to know if he or she owned it or rented it, how many acres were involved, what crops were raised and their value, how many and what kinds of livestock were maintained, and so on. It was a way for policy makers to get a snapshot of the nation.

The information remained confidential. Census results don't become public until 75 years later. Genealogists and historians now find them chock full of valuable information, even though the data may be inaccurate depending on which family members were available to answer the questions when the census-taker arrived.

I don't know how my ancestors felt about being asked questions about their livelihoods and backgrounds, but I know that I am grateful to them for answering the questions. I know a little bit more about who they were -- how prosperous they were or were not, compared to their neighbors, how hard they might have had to work on their farms, what they ate, and so on -- than I would otherwise. In many ways, the census answers makes them more three-dimensional for me, not just names on a birth certificate.

That's now why the census is taken, but it is a byproduct, and I'm glad it exists.

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