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The Evolution of the Decennial Census

The classic publication to learn about the history of the US Census and trace the questions asked through time is Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses From 1790 to 2000. I refer to this frequently when teaching students about the census. But check out this incredibly handy visual look at the history of the US census that traces which questions were asked for each census. This nicely illustrates the problem with, for example, asking about the number of Latinos or Chinese in the US from 1800 – present. The Census is a snapshot in time and reflects the legislative and political contexts of that time. Enjoy the viz!

The census is an essential part of American democracy. The United States counts its population every ten years to determine how many seats each state should have in Congress. Census data have also been used to levy taxes and distribute funds, estimate the country’s military strength, assess needs for social programs, measure population density, conduct statistical analysis of longitudinal trends, and make business planning decisions.

We looked at every question on every census from 1790 to 2020. The questions—over 600 in total—tell us a lot about the country’s priorities, norms, and biases in each decade. They depict an evolving country: a modernizing economy, a diversifying population, an imperfect but expanding set of civil and human rights, and a growing list of armed conflicts in its memory. What themes and trends will you notice?

PLEASE BE ADVISED THAT OVER THE COURSE OF AMERICAN HISTORY, QUESTIONS ON THE CENSUS HAVE INCLUDED TERMINOLOGY THAT WE CONSIDER OUTDATED OR EVEN OFFENSIVE TODAY. WE INCLUDE THESE AS HISTORICAL ARTIFACTS, BUT WE ARE MINDFUL THAT STANDARDS HAVE EVOLVED AND WILL CONTINUE TO EVOLVE.

via The Evolution of the American Census.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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