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2020 Census - Thoughts & Observations

A lifelong lover of history, I enjoy writing articles about the past and interesting political topics, especially when the two intersect.

A Census Taker Job With The 2020 Census

Even though I retired almost two years ago I like to take occasional temporary jobs allowing me to experience new things, meet new people and make some extra money.

Seeing a job announcement in January 2020 seeking to hire people to work on the census. I applied and I was hired as a field supervisor in January. Then came the COVID-19 Pandemic and I ended up working from mid-Jul through the end of October instead of the 4 to 6 weeks from mid-April through May. The job was very interesting and I learned a lot about the Census, including its origins and past history. I also came away with both a greater understanding of its role in our country as well seeing many of its shortcomings.

COVID-19 Pandemic Had Major Impact On Our Census Job

Like many other aspects of our lives in 2020 the Coronavirus wreaked havoc on the taking of the 2020 Census. Census forms were mailed out to every dwelling address in the Census Bureau’s vast dwelling database in February or early March. People had the option of completing and mailing the paper form back, going online and answering the questions or calling a toll free telephone number and answering the questions over the phone. People had to answer the questions based upon the number of people living in their dwelling unit as of Census Day which was Wednesday April 1, 2020. A baby born on or before April 1st was counted in the 2020 Census while one born on April 2nd was not. A household member who died on April 1st was counted while those who died on March 31st or earlier were not. The objective was to count everyone living in the United States on April 1, 2020,

A Decennial Census Is Required By The U.S. Constitution

Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution requires that a count of the number of people in the United States be taken every ten years in order to apportion representation in the House of Representatives and in determining the number of electors each state has in the Electoral College which elects the President.

While the Constitution only requires a head count of the people in each state, it leaves the details and actual mechanics of the Census up to the Executive and Legislative Branches of the Federal Government. Thus, how the Census is to be conducted and what, if any, information beyond the number of people living in a state has been left up to the nation’s leaders at the time each census is conducted. This is good because much has changed over the years since the Constitution was written in 1787 and today. At that time the framers were designing a system to govern a nation that consisted of 13 states along the Atlantic Coast and some lightly populated territory east of the Mississippi River. Census takers went door to door on foot and horseback collecting information. Today we have 50 states spanning the continent along with cars, telephones and the Internet to use in gathering the data.

Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution specifically requires that the Census be taken every ten years and it has despite wars, economic depressions, pandemics and other outside obstacles. However, knowing that things change the framers of the Constitution left the specifics of how to go about the collection and what, if any, additional information is to be collected up to future Presidents and members of Congress.

Congress passes laws approving funding and laying some ground rules for the Census and the Executive Branch determines the questions to be asked, the mechanics of how the data will be collected and supervises the collection process as well as the analysis and publication of the data.

Current law provides for fines against individuals who either refuse to respond to the census or give false information. The same laws also currently provide for prison terms of up to 5 years and fines up to $5,000 for divulging census information. While statistical information such as the number of single males, number of children under 5 years old, etc. in a particular area is made available to the public as soon as such data is tabulated these laws strictly forbid the release of names or any other personal identifying information that people are required to provide. Current law does allow the release of detailed individual data after 72 years, a factor which has made old Census data a popular tool for genealogists, historians, family history buffs and other researchers.

My Job Involved Collection Of Data From People Who Didn’t Respond To The Mailing

Census Day was April 1st and theoretically everyone would have responded by mail, Internet or phone call around that date.

However, many people failed to respond for a variety of reasons:

  • Many people don’t have a home address - this includes homeless people, students away at college, retirees who travel and are frequently away from home, digital nomads who roam the nation and world and earn a living using digital tools, etc.
  • Ignorance. Much of our public education system has downgraded or stopped teaching history and civics making them unaware of the Census and its role in our political system. For these people the Census form was just another piece of junk mail to be thrown away.
  • The pandemic resulted in many people’s lives being chaotic leaving them to overlook and forget about the Census form.
  • Privacy was a big factor for many as they were concerned with the increasing amounts of personal information being collected by both the government and private sector. An objection advanced by some was that some European nations included religious affiliation in their census data which, when conquered by the Nazis in World War II was used to track down Jews.
  • Finally there is a segment of the population that is anti-government and objects or refuses to provide information.

As mentioned above the Executive and Legislative branches of the government have considerable leeway in choosing how to conduct the Census. Currently the Census Bureau is a part of the Cabinet level Commerce Department with a full time permanent staff which does data collecting and statistical work for the Federal Government between the decennial censuses.

Political Conflicts And Bureaucratic Inertia Slowed Preparations For The Census

Theoretically the Census Bureau should be able to be well organized and ready to go for the Constitutionally mandated census every ten years. However, the career bureaucrats have to follow the wishes of the elected President and Congress both of which can change drastically, in terms of policies and priorities in the course of a decade.

2020 was an election year in which both the President, House of Representatives and one third of the Senate was up for re-election. Partisan divides were great with much of the nation divided politically. The 2020 Census, like every Decennial Census, the outcome would affect how seats in the House of Representatives were apportioned resulting in some states increasing their representation and others losing a Congressional seat or two. It would also affect the number of votes each had in the Electoral College which elects the President.

In addition to the usual bureaucratic inertia, the Trump Administration’s goals and ideas as to how to conduct the Census most certainly differed from much of what, if anything, the Obama Administration had done as to planning for the Census.

One census question pushed by the Trump Administration involved a citizenship question in which people were asked their citizenship status. This was a question that appeared on most of the Censuses up to the 1950s or 60s. The Administration claimed that they needed it to effectively enforce the Voting Rights Act. They were probably also intending to look at census tracts (the Census Bureau divides areas within states and cities into census tracts which are small geographical units that contain between 2,500 and 8,000 people) to compare voter registrations with total votes cast to see if total votes cast exceeded the number of registered voters.

Personally, I feel many people have little or no knowledge of the Constitution and the role the Decennial Census plays in how our government is structured and operates as a result of schools, from primary grades through college have been downplaying or even dropping the teaching of things like history and civics.

America’s First Census In 1790

The nation’s first census took place on August 2, 1790 during George Washington’s first term as President. It was conducted by U.S. Marshals who recorded the name of the head of each household along number of free males 16 years and older, free males under 16, free females and all other free persons and slaves*.

The only names listed in this first census were the names of the head of each household which was usually a male. However, in households headed by women (this was rare but did occur) her name appeared on the census roll as did the name of a free Black or Indian who was the head of the household. Free Black heads of households had a B (for black) or M (for mulatto) in parenthesis after their name**.

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The same is true for Indians who lived in the community and paid taxes. Indians living on reservations were not included as they were not only not citizens but the reservation’s relationship was via treaty with the Federal Government and not with the state that surrounded the reservations. These reservations were, and still are to some extent, quasi nations which are exempt from certain state laws. Reservations can have casinos even though state laws outlaw casinos, members were exempt from the military draft up through World War I (however, some tribal councils, like those of the Oneida, issued their own declaration of war against Germany in World War I and instructed their young men to join the U.S. Army to fight the war) and some still issue their own passports which are recognized by a few foreign nations.



Blacks Were Not Counted As Three Fifths Of A Person On The Census

One of the myths spread about the census is that the Constitution originally required that for the purposes of the Census Blacks be counted as 3/5th of a person rather than as a whole person. This claim is wrong as Blacks have been counted as full persons in every Census since the first one in 1790. The first sentence of the third paragraph of Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution reads

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to 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.

Note that there is no mention of blacks or whites and the three fifths just refers to other Persons not mentioned in the first part of the sentence. Further down in Section 9 of Article I forbids Congress from interfering with the Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit prior to the year 1808.

Both of these sections were compromises between Southern states which, due to the nature of their economies required large numbers of cheap laborers, had large numbers of slaves and Northern states whose economies did not rely as heavily on cheap labor, had far fewer slaves. The three fifths compromise reduced the advantage of slave ownership in areas of Federal taxation as well as representation in Congress and in the Electoral College. Section 9 allowed the importation of slaves to continue for a while but allowed Congress, if and when it desired, to end the importation of slaves any time after the start of 1808.

Contrary to the belief of some that all blacks in the U.S. prior to the Civil War were slaves there was a part of the black population that was free. Further, at the time of the nation’s founding as well as the time of the first Census slavery was legal in all the 13 states and territories. While the use of slaves was predominantly in the southern states there were some slave owners in northern states as well.

Finally in addition to free blacks living in the South as well as in the North, a few of these free blacks, from colonial times to the Civil War owned black slaves themselves*. Also, in a few rare instances there were slaves who were white. Under Maryland law at that time if a white woman married a black slave she also became a slave of the same master. In the first situation above a free Black who owned slaves would be counted as a full person while his slaves would each be counted as ⅗ of a person for Census purposes. In the second case the white woman who became a slave when she married would be counted as ⅗ of a person for Census purposes.



Ignorance Surrounding The Census

As I mentioned above many people we encountered had no idea as to what the Census was and why they had to complete the Census.

The Census Bureau ran a large advertising campaign attempting to inform people what the Census was and why they should respond as well as stressing the benefits of the Census to those of us being trained to be census takers. Rather than presenting the Census as a civic duty that determines the number of people sent to represent their state in the lower House of Congress and the number of votes their state has in the Electoral College the focus was on the effect of the impact of the Census on the financing of local projects.

Yes Census data is a key factor in deciding where and on what projects federal dollars are spent but this is mainly of interest to the thousands of people who work in Federal, State and local jobs along with colleges, school districts and numerous non-profits. I have worked in some of these areas which rely heavily on government grants. However, except for those at the top of these organizations and some lower level employees whose jobs are dependent upon grant funding, most people aren’t aware of how the process works other than that such local projects are funded mostly with federal rather than local tax dollars.

Also, while some of these funds do some good it is also very inefficient in that, in my experience, the Federal Government first spends money collecting taxes and then, because the nation is so large and complex that they can’t just send the money to local entities that produce and deliver the projects and services directly the money is usually sent to the states in the form of block grants which the states first take a cut to cover the expense of managing and disbursing the funds. These entities in turn take a cut and disburse the funds to smaller entities who actually do the work of building the projects or providing the services. Most of the people involved in this process, especially those actually producing the project or providing the service know little or nothing about the actual process.

In my opinion the answer to the problem of people not participating in the census is for the school system to put the teaching of history and civics back into their curriculum's so that their students when they graduate are ready to perform their duties as citizens in a democracy.

People Don’t Know Their Neighbors

Despite the pandemic with its lock downs and people working from home we often had a difficult time finding people home. When our teams (and supervisors like me who answered the call to go out and knock on doors to try to get the job done by its original mid-September end date) encountered these situations we were told to find a neighbor and get the information from them.

This worked in the past when people grew up, married, bought a house and started a family and didn't move far from where they had grown up. I remember a presentation on the pending airline deregulation presented at a lunch meeting of a local business economic group in the late 1970s. The presenter pointed out that deregulation would reduce airline fares and introduce millions of new customers to air travel. He cited statistics that at that time the vast majority of the U.S. population lived their entire lives within a 200 mile radius of where they were born. This was just one of the changes as we neared the end of the third quarter of the 20th Century.

Back in that era most men worked while their wives stayed home managing the house and raising the children. Jobs tended to be located in a central business or industrial district which enabled many to commute along with their neighbors by bus. Car ownership was not as widespread as today but even for those with cars it was often less expensive and more convenient to commute by bus. Children attended neighborhood public schools and many families attended nearby churches on Sundays. Children came home after school and played with the neighboring children. It was easy to get to know and interact with the neighbors.

However, nowadays both men and women work, usually driving to workplaces scattered across large metropolitan areas. With both parents working full time children now attend after school programs rather than going home. Starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s children were reassigned to different schools throughout the district and bused to these distant schools which often separated them from neighboring children. The declining quality of public schools resulted in increasing numbers of parents enrolling their children in charter and private schools the numbers of which have increased steadily. Church attendance began to decline also with the many Catholic and traditional mainline Prostent churches declining and even closing while newer denominations filled part of the gap but these were usually located in other parts of large cities.

As a result, for many people neighborhoods are often little more than collections of houses in which people return at night and then leave when day dawns. Thus it is not surprising to find people who know nothing about the people living next door

Race And Ethnicity Questions On The Census

Recent censuses have had questions about individual’s race and ethnicity. Question 8 of the 2020 Census asked if the person was of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin. If the answer was NO the enumerator checked the NO box and went on to question 9. If the person answered YES they were then asked if they considered themselves or their origins as Chicano, Mexican American, Spanish, various Latin American and a couple other options.

Question 9 asked about their race with the first part consisting of a list that included White; Black or African American; American Indian or Alaska Native; Chinese; Filipino; Asian Indian; Vietnamese; Korean; Japanese; other Asian; Native Hawaiian; Samoan; Chamorro; other Pacific Islander; some other race. The enumerator would then check the box next to the race the person selected.

After selecting their race the respondent was asked what their or their ancestor’s country of national origin was. For recent immigrants and their children the answer was usually a specific country. However, many whose ancestors had been in the United States for generations the response was to name one or more countries or simply say either Heniz 57 or many countries. Heinz 57 referred to the Heinz Soup Company’s 57 varieties of soup which, in this case, meant that their ancestors came from a variety of countries. Some answered America so these were recorded as DK for Don’t Know while others would repeat their last name and say “I guess that makes me” Irish, Polish, Italian, etc.

Census Should Revert To A Simple Head Count For State Representation Purposes

When President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (the Census Bureau was originally part of the State Department and is now a part of the Commerce Department) set up the first Census in 1790 they included questions designed to give them an idea of the composition of the population as well as simply the number of people. They were especially interested in the male population aged 16 and over as this was the main labor force as well as the number of men available for militia duty (state militias, now known as National Guard, has historically been part time state controlled militia with the full time U.S. Armed Forces kept small).

Over the years the Census has been the main source of data about the composition of the population of the United States making it an important policy tool. However, while the Decennial Census was a critical source of national statistics in the 19th and much of the 20th Centuries, today’s world is awash in population data generated by government at all levels as well as the private sector. Many fear that the massive collection of data is a threat to our privacy and freedom. A big problem in collecting data in the 2020 Census was peoples’ concerns about their privacy as well as government misuse of and carelessness in the use of the data they collect.

Current Federal Law concerning the Census makes it a crime for citizens to not only refuse to respond to Census questions but also a crime to not answer questions honestly. However, there is a loophole in which the official currently in charge of the Census has considerable latitude over what questions are asked. And, while in recent decades the composition of the Census questions have been the subject of fierce political fights the party in power still has the upper hand.

While the Trump Administration lost the fight over including a citizenship question on the 2020 Census they still had considerable control over the makeup of the rules and questions. In setting up the rules and questions the Administration used the law’s flexibility to allow respondents to self identify when answering questions relating to things like their race, ethnicity and gender. Thus a man arranging with his doctor for a sex change operation can honestly answer that he considers himself a woman, while another man may claim to be a woman just to mess with the statistics. It is impossible to tell if a respondent sincerely believes he is a woman or just lying. The same is true for race and ethnicity. Self identification self identification, whether the result of honest belief or a desire to mess with the system can skew the results and lead to poor policy decisions that are based upon such data.

A second change allowed a person to respond to any question with DK (Don’t Know) or R (Refused). This second change was very helpful when dealing with people who were either too busy to answer the questions and especially helpful with people who were reluctant to answer due to privacy concerns. It also helped with gated apartment communities that, instead of a guard at the gate they provided residents with a pass card or remote control device to open the gates while also keeping others, including Census workers out. In many of those cases I was able to contact the management company and get a list of all the apartment numbers with the word vacant next to those that were vacant on Census Day and the number of residents in the apartment for those that were occupied. Of course for privacy reasons they did not include information about those occupying a unit but we were able to get the headcount required by the Constitution.

For cases where we either could not get information beyond a headcount as with gated communities or where we encountered people who didn’t want to take the time to answer the questions or didn’t want to participate in the Census I could usually get them to answer yes or no as to whether they occupied the dwelling on April 1st and how many people lived in the dwelling. While this satisfied the Constitutional requirement but limited the usability of the Census data for government planning purposes and for those seeking Federal grant funds, which had the effect of helping to shrink the Federal Government, a goal which both political conservatives and the Trump Administration were seeking.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Chuck Nugent


Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on April 02, 2021:

David - Thanks. I'll check it out

David B Katague from Northern California and the Philippines on March 31, 2021:

Here's a very informative video on the Census that Ditas video taped last year

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on March 28, 2021:

David B Katague -thank you for your comments. I'm glad you enjoyed my article. Thanks for your daughter's great job on the 2020 Census and her work on the Census since 2000.

David B Katague from Northern California and the Philippines on March 26, 2021:

I enjoyed reading this article. It is very informative and detailed. My interest and knowledge of the Census 2020 is inspired by the fact that my youngest daughter, Ditas Katague is the Director of the California 2020 Census - a job she had since 2000. I am very proud of Ca Census 2020 accomplishments!

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on March 26, 2021:

Peggy - I agree with you we need to return to including civics in the curriculum of our K-12 schools. By the time I graduated from high school I had been assigned to read the Constitution and Bill of Rights once or twice in grade school and a couple of times in high school. The thing that impressed me the most when going back and reading the relevant parts for this Hub was how clear and easy to understand the language was and also how specific the text was while also how flexible the requirements were - The President & Congress has to conduct a Census every 10 years and count everyone in the nation. But how they were to do this was left up to those that followed. Thanks again for your comments

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on March 26, 2021:

Joanie Ruppel - Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the Hub. I learned a lot working on that job and also had a great time being outside and meeting a lot of people

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 26, 2021:

It is a shame that civics is not taught in school as it was when you and I were children. It should be for all the reasons you noted, and to have a better informed voting public.

That temporary job of yours sounded interesting.

Joanie Ruppel from Keller, Texas on March 26, 2021:

Excellent explanation Chuck! Thank you for serving as a keeper of the purpose!

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