C is for Census Confusion

I was reading this story a month or two back about this onerous-sounding census. Apparently, there was this couple that had to travel around 100km (c. 60 miles) just to get counted. Worse, she was at least eight months pregnant and they were traveling on foot or on donkey.

Oh, yeah, it was in the Biblical book of Luke, and it begins: In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.

Conversely, the US Census in 2010 is pretty straightforward, with 10 questions for the householder, and fewer for others in the residence. However, for some reason, there seems to be a lot of conflict and confusion.

Should we count illegal aliens? Well, the 1910 Census didn’t differentiate; it just wanted a count.
15. Year of immigration to the United States.
16. Whether naturalized or alien.
17. Whether able to speak English; or, if not, give language spoken.

Some say the questions are too personal.
The 1860 Census asked of each person: “Whether deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper or convict.”

A complaint about the use of the word Negro on the 2010 form.
Fact is that people of African heritage have been designated so many different ways over the years In 1850, the tern was black, or if they were of mixed race, i.e., mulatto. The race choices in 1890 included black, mulatto, quadroon, and octoroon. In the early part of the 20th century, race was asked for but not specified on the form, only in the instructions. By 1950, the preferred term was Negro; 1970 said “Negro or Black”, and by 2000, one could be Black, African American, or Negro. So I think it is much ado about very little.

Incidentally, those terms in the 1890 Census had some very specific meanings. Mulatto meant someone who was half black and half white. Quadroon referred to someone of one-quarter black ancestry. Octoroon means a person who is one-eighth black. These are not terms generally found acceptable in 21st Century thinking.

But these are point-of-view issues. There also seems to be some confusion about what happens when people live in more than one location during substantial parts of the year, such as people in northern states who winter in South. The Census Bureau will count people who have two residences “where they spend the majority of their time. People should decide where they spend the majority of their time and fill out the census form sent to that address. If a respondent tells a census taker that they consider their northern address to be their home, even if they happened to still be staying at their southern home on Census Day, the census taker will record the residents at their northern address.”

Then there are the deliberate attempts to cause confusion in the Census. The Republican Party is seeking input and money from GOP voters — seemingly under the guise of the U.S. Census Bureau. There is also a census e-mail scam misappropriating the Better Business Bureau’s name. The message, basically, is that one only needed to give the Census taker the number of people at the address. And the BBB is NOT happy about it.

One procedural issue that seems to have come to light especially in New York in recent weeks: The Census Bureau counts people in prison as if they were residents of the communities where they are incarcerated. About 2/3 of the prisoners in the state of New York are from New York City, yet the vast majority of prisons are in mostly rural sections of the state. The argument is that the reapportionment favors those rural districts; what’s more, those prisoners can’t vote, making the imbalance even greater. Still, the Census is mandated to count people “where they are”, and the reallocation of prisoners to various geographies if legislation mandating it comes to pass will likely be a logistical nightmare.

So, I guess this Census stuff isn’t that simple after all.


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