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The History Of The U.S. Census


The Trump administration's proposal that questions about citizenship be added to the 2020 census has caused a political firestorm. Democrats claim this would discourage people from filling out their census forms. Steve Inskeep spoke with commentator Cokie Roberts about the origins of the U.S. census.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Traditionally, presidents have encouraged anybody living in America to be counted. Here's President George H.W. Bush.


GEORGE H.W. BUSH: Be a part of this great democracy. Answer the census. It counts for more than you think.

INSKEEP: Well, let's ask Cokie about the history of the U.S. census. She answers your questions each week about how the government works. Hey, there, Cokie.


INSKEEP: OK, couple questions here that get at the history of the count. Let's listen.

MIKE KOEPPEN: Mike Koeppen, Arlington Heights, Ill. How much information is required by the Constitution for the U.S. census?

INSKEEP: OK, how much information is required? And then Jan Winter (ph) also asks how many of us were there for the first census, and do we know how many ethnicities were represented?

ROBERTS: (Laughter) Well, all the Constitution says is that everyone must be counted in order to apportion congressional seats and calculate taxes. The first census of 1790 only asked if you were a free white male over 16, if you were a free white male under 16, if you were a free white female, other free person and slaves. There were 3,993,024 of us. But both Thomas Jefferson, who was in charge of the census, and George Washington thought that was an undercount, Steve. So it's been controversial from the beginning. Ethnicity, by the way, wasn't asked until much, much later.

INSKEEP: Well, our next question gets at that issue of ethnicity or, more properly speaking, family origin.

CHERYL FOX STRAUSBERG: This is Cheryl Fox Strausberg from Germantown, Md. Is it illegal to not answer questions on the census if you do not wish to disclose things like citizenship status or where your family is from?

ROBERTS: The short answer to that question is yes. It is illegal. And you can be fined, but you're very unlikely to be prosecuted. The country of birth was on the questionnaire from 1850 to 1950, and it was the census taker, Steve, who decided your race until 1960. There's been a lot of controversy over the years about ethnic questions. Sometimes various ethnic groups want them asked. Sometimes they don't want them asked. Of course, there are political implications from all of that.

INSKEEP: And this next question gets at the politics.

JOHN LAVELLE: I'm John LaVelle from Minneapolis, Minn. I'm curious to learn how the census does or does not feed into political gerrymandering?


ROBERTS: Well, certainly it can feed into it. Suppose you know from the data, for instance, that a large population of African-Americans lives in a certain area, and you suspect that they will vote Democratic. You can draw lines to take advantage of that vote or try to dilute it. There's tons of information that can be mined for all kinds of political purposes and also for the allocation of government programs, which is why it's considered so important.

INSKEEP: We have one more question here. It's about the rest of the world.

JOSH EISENBERG: Hi, this is Josh Eisenberg from Carlisle, Pa. And I was wondering what other countries do censuses, or is it censi (ph)?

ROBERTS: (Laughter) I like the Latin there.


ROBERTS: Many countries do have decennial censuses as we do. The United Kingdom does. Mexico does. By the way, the earliest census was the Babylonians in 3800 B.C. And then there's the Gospel writer Luke's nativity story of a census by Caesar Augustus, but I hate to tell you this, Steve. That one's been called into all kinds of historical question.

INSKEEP: Cokie Roberts, thanks very much.

ROBERTS: Always good to talk to you, Steve.

INSKEEP: You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and the government work by tweeting us with the hashtag, #AskCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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