by Brad Brown
Special to the Sounder
The first Article, second Section of The United States Constitution created and codified the decennial (every ten year) census or enumeration – a “counting” of the residents in the country. A counting of a nation’s people is a process as ancient as the Chinese, Egyptian, Babylonian and Roman empires to assure adequate administering and taxing of their populations. The Romans began theirs in the 6th century BCE and included accounting for citizens who carried arms. The Roman census initiated the travels of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, according to The Bible in Luke, chapter two.
The first United States census was conducted in 1790, just after the ratification of the Constitution. The categories of population were: free white males of 16 years and upward, including heads of families; free white males under 16 years; free white females, including heads of families; all other free persons and slaves. No native peoples were counted and, due to a compromise during the Constitutional Convention, a slave was counted as 3/5 person.
The motivation for this “Three-fifths Compromise” hinged on the key rationale for taking the census at all: political power.
Representational seats in the U.S. House of Representatives were allocated by population. Southern states with large populations of slaves were fated to have proportionally larger numbers with a full counting of slaves. Northern states, and particularly those which opposed slavery, objected to large non-voting populations disproportionately weighting Congress in the favor of the South. This compromise was nullified by the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War.
Alexander Hamilton, 1787: “Much has been said of the impropriety of representing men who have no will of their own…. They are men, though degraded to the condition of slavery. They are persons known to the municipal laws of the states which they inhabit, as well as to the laws of nature. But representation and taxation go together….Would it be just to impose a singular burden, without conferring some adequate advantage?”
The United States uses the census to allocate or apportion representation to each state and to determine the distribution of billions of federal aid dollars to communities, cities and states. In addition, the U.S. Census Bureau, which since 1903 has been part of the Commerce Department, has developed an American Community Survey as part of the Decennial Census. Since 2005, the ACS has collected more detailed information by means of a “long-form” which will go to one in six households. This process provides rich data for communities, businesses and the public. The Census Bureau, at its “American Fact Finder” website (www.factfinder.census.gov), provides a dynamic source of data that anyone can see. Additionally, the bureau’s history and process of the U.S. Census is at census.gov/history/.
For an example of the 2020 Census form itself, go to https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/decennial-census/technical-documentation/questionnaires/2020.html or search for “2020 census questionnaire.”