Counting for Something: The Census

Counting for Something: The Census

The census?! Who cares? Boring! Well, if you think you know all about the census, you haven’t been paying attention.

Enshrining this particular political tool in our Constitution marked a turning point in world history. Previously, censuses had been used to tax, confiscate property, or conscript male youth into military service. The visionary genius of our Founders lay in making this tool of government into a tool of political empowerment for the governed over their government. The plan was to count every person living in the newly created United States of America, and to use that count to determine representation in the Congress.

Right now, it’s being manipulated to do just the opposite. But unlike the Postal Service, another fundamental American institution under siege, it isn’t garnering public support, although this is the first time the census has been conducted since the rise of social media, and the first time it is primarily online: Last April, the Census Bureau announced it would extend the count deadline to October 31, due to Covid-19. But on August 3, under White House pressure, the deadline was moved up to September 30—insane, during a pandemic—but canny: it guarantees the population figures will be delivered to the White House in December, while Trump is still in office. Senior Census Bureau officials said they could not provide an accurate account with such a short timeline, which also shrinks procedures for analyzing and correcting problems; members of Congress expressed grave concern; numerous lawsuits were sparked to save another major government function from erosion or destruction.

But our census is in trouble. Today, more than one in three people hired as census takers have quit or failed to show up, because of the virus. More than a third of U.S. households have not yet responded, more than any at this stage in a previous census, and understandable rising mistrust on the part of immigrant families, undocumented families, mixed status families, and the LatinX community were already challenges. The Trump regime has worked feverishly to erase undocumented immigrants from the totals before sending the census in January to Congress to reapportion the House of Representatives. That plan would reshuffle House seats to give major advantages to the Republican party. The result will be gerrymandered districts even more awful than the current 12 worst House districts, some of which are so contorted that maps of them resemble ducks or snakes.

On September 10, a federal court ruled that excluding undocumented immigrants from being counted for apportionment violates the statute that apportionment must be based on everyone who is a resident of the US, regardless of their legal status. So that’s a relief. But the time is very short to get the word out—although censuses themselves have been around almost forever. Here, with the help of the Population Reference Bureau, are some highlights.

* In 3800 BCE, the Babylonian empire took its first known census, counting livestock and quantities of butter, honey, milk, wool, and vegetables.
* In 2 CE, China’s Han Dynasty recorded the oldest surviving census data, showing a population of 57.7 million people living in 12.4 million households.
* In 1086, while not strictly a census, the Domesday Book surveyed English landowners and their holdings as the basis for the tax system of William the Conqueror.
* In 1400, without a written language, the Incas used a system of knots on strings made from llama or alpaca hair to record census data for their empire.
* In the 1700s and 1800s, European colonialist nations like France, England, and Denmark, avoided conducting censuses of their own countries due to opposition from the nobility, who feared losing power to the central government. But it was different in their colonies–the Americas, the Caribbean, etc.—where censuses were used to promote growth and keep the colonies well-taxed and under control.
* In 1790, enumerators on horseback began the first United States census, which took 18 months to complete. The results were used to establish the size of the House of Representatives. Enslaved people were counted as 3/5 of a person until after the Civil War (1861-1865), and Native Americans were not counted at all. The first Federal Congress established a special committee to prepare questions for the initial census. According to a Boston newspaper report, Virginia Representative James Madison recommended at least five of them: questions on sex, race, relationship to the head of household, name of the head of household—and number of enslaved persons, if any. Marshals also collected data on occupation and number of dwellings in a city or town. That first census was managed by Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, and took place in the original 13 states plus the districts of Kentucky, Maine, Vermont, and the southwest territory of Tennessee.
* Between 1850-1860, anti-slavery campaigners used data from two consecutive U.S. censuses to build support for abolition by showing the number of enslaved people in the United States was rising, contrary to arguments by pro-slavery politicians.
* In 1864, during the U.S. Civil War, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman marched Union troops through Georgia in record time because he relied on census data to find local resources for his army rather than establish long supply lines.
* In 1871, British officials insisted that their standard list of occupations be used in India’s census, thus highlighting cultural differences when census takers struggled to classify such jobs in India as “jokers, storytellers, hail averters, and prayer mutterers.”
* In 1890, the first electric tabulating machines were introduced in the United States Census, hugely advancing the technological development of census taking.
* In 2001, more than 390,000 census respondents in England and Wales self-identified as followers of the Jedi faith, since an Internet campaign claimed—incorrectly—that the Jedi belief system would get official government recognition as a religion if it garnered enough support. Claimed one adherent, “Do it because you love Star Wars … or just to annoy people.”

And last but decidedly not least, in 1988, a book by Marilyn J. Waring, former parliamentarian from New Zealand, broke on the census shore like a tsunami. It seems that the work of more than half the world’s population–women–wasn’t being accounted for, in censuses or anywhere else. Only monetized labor was factored in, and this exclusion had been formally institutionalized in the United Nations System of National Accounts, which in turn forms the basis for all the censuses globally. So if, for example, you mined coal, as mostly men do, your work was counted; but if you gathered wood or peat or cow dung for fuel, as millions of women across the Global South do, your work vanished. As did all housework, caregiving, volunteer work, “hidden economy” labor (being prostituted, used for surrogacy, used for involuntary organ donation), subsistence farming, herding, and so on. Even the basic reproductive work of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and childrearing: invisible. Indeed, every medical professional in a delivery room performs work considered productive and therefore counted—except the work by the woman in labor herself. She isn’t “productive,” because she didn’t “produce” anything tangibly salable. (Of course, she produced the labor force itself, which in turn produced everything else–but hey, never mind.)

This is pivotal, since resources are allotted by governments back to those “productive” workers, and no one else. Most women labor, in effect, under feudalism, not capitalism. Women in the developing world are responsible for more than 50 percent of all food production (on the African continent women do 60 to 80 percent of all agricultural work). In Europe and North America, women constitute well over 40 percent of the paid labor force, in addition to contributing almost double the (“estimated”) 40 percent of the Gross Domestic Product in unpaid labor in the home. Although a few feminist economists had grazed the problem of women’s unpaid labor as early as the 1940s (even Engels had taken a stab at it but retreated rapidly), Waring was the first to exhaustively research and expose the full depth and breadth of this stunning erasure.

Now, more than 30 years later, If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics (published as Counting for Nothing across the Commonwealth) has spawned a Canadian documentary film, countless papers and books, and honors for its author. More importantly, it influenced the 1995 Beijing U.N. Conference for Women toward making women’s economic contribution visible in statistics; Eurostat (the statistical office of the European Union) developed methods for household satellite accounts for Europe; and Canadian National Statistics contributed the method of development in the USA. Furthermore, although unpaid household work doesn’t yet count towards Social Security entitlements, the care credit introduced in 1992 in Norway is a step toward recognizing unpaid household work as a basis for future income security. The ripple effects have been felt in Finland and Denmark, and have influenced research on such specifics as the economic value of breast-feeding, thus helping to shape Australian health and employment policy. The work of actually changing policy is political, but though maddeningly slow and requiring public pressure, it does continue. In the meanwhile, if you’re up at 4 A.M. with a sick child’s fever, that doesn’t count as productive labor. Just sayin.’

So if you haven’t done this already, you’re immediately going to go online and fill out the census, right? It’s quick, easy, takes less than 10 minutes, and your response will help direct $1.5 trillion in federal funding—your own taxes–toward healthcare, schools, roads, bridges, fire departments, public transportation, and more. Businesses will determine where to build new supermarkets because of this data, and emergency responders will be able to locate injured people after natural disasters. Most of all, the original legal purpose of the decennial census, as intended by our nation’s Founders, is apportionment of the 435 memberships/seats in the U.S. House of Representatives among the 50 states, based on state population counts, for the next ten years.

Remember: the census has no questions about citizenship, political affiliation, banking information, or Social Security numbers. Remember: courts have ruled that the census does not violate the Fourth Amendment (unreasonable search and seizure) and does not violate a respondent’s right to privacy or speech. Remember, too: on paper, online, or by toll-free phone, it’s available in English, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Tagalog, and Vietnamese, plus a video in American Sign Language. (Happily, “same-sex husband/wife/spouse” and “same sex unmarried partner” are now listed along with opposite sex, in both cases.)

We are at risk of being drastically under-counted, due to the virus at large and the virus in the White House. But we can still change that. The very first census turned up only 3.9 million (non-Indian) Americans, including nearly 700,000 enslaved persons, and both President Washington and Secretary of State Jefferson dismissed it as an under-count. “Our real numbers will exceed, greatly, the official returns of them,” wrote Washington. (He put the blame on negligent census takers, as well as on “the religious scruples of some… [and] the fears of others that it was intended as the foundation of a tax.”)

Today we need to show up for the census in huge numbers, the same way we will for the vote, so that there can be no mistake about our demand for both representation and resources. The Supreme Court recently described the U.S. Census as “the linchpin of the federal statistical system.” It’s also the government’s largest peacetime operation. Let’s use it. Go to–and count yourself in!