Stories are often told on pages, but one medium preserving millions of narratives may be surprising: the U.S. Census.
Speaking before nearly 40 attendees at Carnegie Mellon University’s Kresge Theatre, local historian Tammy Hepps and author Dan Bouk described how the constitutionally authorized data set is both a bountiful gift and exasperating riddle for genealogists and historians.
In demonstrating their assessment of the records, Hepps and Bouk humorously modeled the practice and confusion of a 1940s census taker, who arrives at the home of a man, who lives with another man and has a child. The enumerator’s effort to understand interpersonal relationships and household finances while carelessly transcribing a surname evidenced a familiar reality, the presenters said.
To log information, census takers were required to have doorstep exchanges with residential dwellers. The outcome of those interactions signaled both a quest for data and democracy, Hepps and Bouk said.
Information gathered by the census helps the government determine “how to distribute funds and assistance to states and localities,” as well as how many seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
From the nation’s onset there has been a clear desire to count people, Bouk said, as the census is the “only kind of scientific apparatus” required by the Constitution.
The difficulty, though, is that although the Founding Fathers wanted to preserve data for equitable governance, the Constitution stipulates that slaves are tallied as only three-fifths of a person. There was a simultaneous pursuit of representation, while “weaponizing” the democratic records, Bouk, a historian at Colgate University, told attendees.
During the program and within his book, “Democracy's Data: The Hidden Stories in the U.S. Census and How to Read Them,” Bouk said information from the 1940 census was not only used to create social programming but to harm the citizens it recorded. He cited the politicization of a census question about income as a means of attacking President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Unlike those between 1880-1930, the 1940 census didn’t ask about a person’s parents’ birthplace. Similarly, while between 1900-1930, the census indicated the person’s year of immigration to the U.S., the 1940 census did not. Finally, on both the 1900 and 1910 censuses, there is a record of how many children were born to each woman, and how many of those children were still living; later sources don’t include that data.
“I look at the 1940’s census sheet and I compare it to the earlier ones that I spend more time with, and I really do not like the 1940 census,” Hepps said. “If I want to recreate the community, I need to know who was in the community.”
Hepps referenced the 1910 census and described how information detailing the usage of German, Hungarian and Yiddish in Allegheny County counters a common misconception.
“We have this sense that all of these Eastern European Jewish immigrants were Yiddish speakers but in fact what the census is recording is that there was a diversity of Jewish people who were in Homestead,” she said. Likewise, by demonstrating that local Jewish residents had varied occupations, from owning a bakery to working in steel, “I see a much more diverse story about the Jews of Homestead than what came down to me in the original oral history that I got about this community.”
“Because of these really granular questions that are here in the census,” Hepps continued, “I'm able to learn a lot more about these families…and understand the sort of internal differences that come together in one community.”
Grace Stokan came from Mount Washington for the program. She told the Chronicle she studied history and relied on census data to research her family. Learning about the census’ evolution was helpful, Stokan said: “I had no idea that they asked less questions as time went on and why that was the case.”
The census isn’t only used to distribute hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds to local communities, according to the.Census Bureau: “The census tells us who we are and where we are going as a nation.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.