Count the ways the census is useful to us

January 5, 2010 

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I cringe when I see sentiments like this one about the U.S. census: "All the government needs to know is my name and how many people live in my house and that's it."

Even a member of Congress has announced that she intends to boycott. In June, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said, "I know for my family, the only question we will be answering is how many people are in our home. We won't be answering any information beyond that." She is co-sponsoring legislation to limit the census to four questions: name, age, date of response and number of people living in one household.

As any elected official knows (or should know), the census is not just a device to apportion political representation in Congress. And it is not just a way to help policymakers distribute federal dollars and decide where schools, highways, hospitals and other services are needed.

The U.S. census provides an essential portrait of who we are as a people and how we live — from 1790 to the present.

The census gives us a person-by-person, family-by-family, street-by-street, community-by-community, state-by-state set of details about Americans. It is not just "America by the Numbers." I know this firsthand as I've delved into family history.

From my family's oral history, I knew that my mother's grandfather had left Ireland for New York in 1893 and that he worked for James Butler's Irish neighborhood grocery store chain.

But the June 6, 1900, census snapshot fills in a whole lot more fascinating detail. Martin E. Roache lived at 551 W. 152nd St., in Washington Heights, Manhattan. He was boarding with the Schmidt family.

The husband, age 42, had arrived from Germany in 1875 and was a baker. The wife, age 39, was born in New York, the daughter of a German immigrant and a native-born New Yorker. They had two children, ages 10 and 5. The older child was attending school. A 21-year-old German, non-English-speaking, non-literate immigrant man, who had arrived only two years before, was a servant. My great-grandfather, age 27, was a "tea buyer" by occupation.

The block on which he lived had Swedish, Irish and German immigrants. In addition to the baker, the block had bookkeepers, salesmen, clerks, a stationary manufacturer, a hardware storekeeper. Many of the immigrants were cooks/nurses/servants in the households on the block. My great-grandfather was the only boarder.

Each census has contained this kind of invaluable information about individuals and about particular places. All of it would be lost if Bachmann's four-question census had been in place.

Those worried about the intrusiveness of the questions should know that page-by-page census information only is available 72 years after the original census date, to protect personal privacy. Thus, the most recent U.S. census available for research is the 1930 census.

For the 2010 census, a 10-question survey will be mailed to every residence in the United States in March and must be returned by National Census Day on April 1. A more in-depth census questionnaire, called the "American Community Survey," is conducted on a rolling basis each year (with 250,000 questionnaires going out each month to U.S. residents).

If you get that longer questionnaire, which delves into 40 topic areas — including such things as income, citizenship, disability, plumbing and heating in the house, telephone service, family relationships and educational attainment — just remember that the information won't be released until 2082. And when it is, it will provide indispensable information about technological change, standard of living and the work people do.

Lopez is an editorial writer for The Sacramento Bee. Write her at plopez@sacbee.com.

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