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Sabine C. Henning (2001)

Census 2000 in the United States of America: The Decennial Count in a Historical Perspective

In: Zeitschrift für Bevölkerungswissenschaft, Vol. 26, 1/2001, p. 85-125, Opladen: Verlag Leske + Budrich, ISSN: 0340-2398

This article is concerned with the Census 2000 in the United States of America. Firstly, the demographic development in the USA since the first Census in 1790 is summarised. In doing so, it is stressed, amongst other things, that the US-United States population has grown from roughly four million people in 1790 to about 281.4 million in 2000. Because of changes in fertility, mortality and migration, the racial/ethnic structure, the age composition or the growth of the population have undergone considerable changes in rural/urban areas in the course of two centuries.

The article then goes on to discuss the Count that took place in 2000 from a historical point of view, and points in detail to distinctions made in the preparation, implementation and evaluation of the Count. This paper presents particular characteristics of the US Census, such as periodicity or simultaneous counting of the population, as they relate to the planning and actual implementation of the Census. Furthermore, it provides information on the distinction between short form and long form that has been made since 1940. It becomes clear from this viewpoint not only that the number of questions has changed over time, but also that their content and wording have altered as social change took place in the country. There is no doubt that the actual counting of data in the USA has been much influenced over the decades by the economic, social and technical changes in the country. Whilst with the first Counts US Marshals visited the households individually and asked the questions, then announced the results publicly for and corrections to be made, citizens now mostly answer the questions themselves and post the completed census forms to the US Census Bureau. The detailed results of the survey are kept strictly confidentially by the US Census Bureau for reasons of data protection. Even the US President or the Internal Revenue Service does not have access to information making it possible to identify an individual. Ultimately, the preparation and publication of the aggregate data have been characterised by the technical developments that have taken place in the country. It is possible to conclude from a glance at the reference material that the US Census Bureau itself has made a major contribution to innovations in the area of large-scale data collation, processing and provision in the USA.

The following section of this article presents the specific benefit and use of the census data in the areas of policy, science and economics, amongst others. Particular emphasis is placed in this section on the political mandate of the US Census Bureau as regards the global collation of the population for purposes of political representation of the individual States in the US Congress. A range of Federal, State and local promotion programmes are also based on census data. Thus, the US Census authority presumed prior to the conclusion of the Census 2000 that roughly USD 182 billion would flow from the Federal budget each year for the next ten years to the States and local authorities (including tribal governments). Adherence to specific statutes is checked and implemented using the Census results. Thus, the US Census Bureau refers for instance to the fact that "... Hispanic origin data are needed for the implementation of a number of federal statutes such as the enforcement of bilingual election rules under the Voting Rights Act and the monitoring and enforcement of equal employment opportunities under the Civil Rights Act" (US Department of Commerce, Census Bureau 2000g: 8). In addition to a large number of further areas of application, which this article discusses in detail, information from the Census is also used as a basis for scientific research. The Census data are also used by local authorities or cities in planning activities, as well as by enterprises in market research. To put it in a nutshell, both previous sections of the article make it clear that the US Census, which is undertaken every ten years, reflects the status quo of the country in data, and itself can be regarded in its preparation, implementation and subsequent evaluation as an expression of the social development of the United States of America at the time of the Census in question.

The article continues by touching on the problem of the incomplete population count in previous US Censuses. Using various statistics and GIS maps, the study demonstrates that it is possible to presume that some four million people (about 1.6 percent of the total population) were not counted in the 1990 Census. This incomplete collation of the population appears to be related to the racial/ethnic and age composition of the inhabitants of the country. According to estimates from the US Census Bureau in Washington, about five percent of Hispanics (1.17 million people) and 4.4 percent of Blacks (1.4 million people) were not counted in the 1990 Census. Frequent changes in place of residence, mistrust of state authorities, insufficient knowledge of English or misinformation regarding the US Census may contribute towards explaining this undercounting. The consequences of this non-collation for the State of Arkansas are discussed, including as they did financial losses in the Federal budget. By considering the Census in 2000, this article demonstrates how the Census Bureau in Washington has attempted to forestall the predictable repetition of this problem.
Finally, this article discusses the future trends in the Census in the USA. It is indicated here that from 2010 in addition to the short form of the US Census, we can expect to see the American Community Survey, which has been under development since 1996, implemented nationwide. The short form will continue to be restricted to a purely numerical collation of the population, and the longer random survey which has been carried out to date will no longer be implemented. The decision on the exact future of the US Census will however ultimately be taken by the US Congress.

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