One Little Question: Are You A Citizen?
The fictional character, reporter Murphy Gardiner, could be forgiven for thinking that the primary use of Census records is to track down long lost relatives. While searching for ancestors, she consults U.S. Census records conveniently online through the National Archives and Records Administration, Internet Archive, and a host of organizations like the Mormon Church’s Family Search. Murphy even gets a dose of old-fashioned microfilm at the Genealogy Forum of Oregon.
What she may not have realized is that these individualized census records are only available from 1790 to 1940. Records beyond that, from 1950 to 2010, are accessible only to the person named in the record or that person’s heir. That’s because of the 72-year rule.
Never heard of it? Neither had I. Apparently, privacy concerns are not new to the American psyche. In 1952, the director of the Census Bureau wanted to balance public release of records with a tradition of confidentiality. They chose 72 years because that span of time was longer than the average lifespan. Until the 1950 Census is released in 2022, sociologists, cartographers, genealogists and data miners of all stripes just have to wait.
On its face, the rule sounds like a good idea. If your information is going to remain private, you’re much more likely to be forthright – not to mention that it’s a federal crime to not answer questions or give false information, even if, on a practical level, you’d never be prosecuted. The real question is: can the government suspend this rule whenever it chooses?
So, why does the government conduct a census in the first place? Article 1, Section 2 of the United States Constitution mandates the “enumeration” of inhabitants every ten years in order to create a proportionate number of representatives for the House. On March 1, 1790, before the first year of his presidency was over, George Washington signed an act to take the first census in August. It didn’t take long to figure out that a mere headcount wasn’t adequate. Government officials wanted to know about the economy, agriculture and a hundred other things. By 1870, questions about demographics, birthplace, literacy and even property value were added.
In 1940, with our nation on the cusp of war and still recovering from the Great Depression, the census could determine how many men between the ages of 21-36 would be eligible for conscription, and how many were still without jobs. So it’s understandable that President Franklin Roosevelt would try to reassure the populace by proclaiming "No person can be harmed in any way by furnishing the information required.”
"No person can be harmed in any way by furnishing the information required."
Reassurances from FDR
But there was something more insidious going on, as well. In late 1939, the FBI and military intelligence agencies pushed the government to loosen confidentiality rules so they could access information on individuals. Census Bureau Director William Austin resisted but was forced to resign after the 1940 election. His successor happily partnered with other agencies. The result? Census data was used to round up more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans on the west coast (naturalized U.S. citizens, U.S. born citizens, and Japanese citizens alike) and banish them to internment camps. From the start, the Japanese-American community had suspected that the Census Bureau was involved, but incontrovertible proof was finally brought to light in 2007 – only eleven years ago. (Learn more in this Washington Post article.)
That brings me to the present-day controversy over a little question that the current administration plans to add to the upcoming 2020 Census: are you a citizen of the United States? The Constitution says “inhabitants” or “persons” should be enumerated – not “citizens” or “green-card holders” or, by default, unauthorized immigrants. The Justice Department claims that it needs a better count of voting-age citizens to enforce protections under the Voting Rights Act. Given the darker chapters of our past, including the use of the Census Bureau to identify Japanese-Americans, there are legitimate concerns that such a question will deter participation. In turn, inaccurate counts lead to representation out of kilter with the population on the ground, and inadequate funding.
On the one hand, minority populations of all kinds should be encouraged to participate so they have a proportional voice in our democracy. The law says that Census data cannot be used in court proceedings without your consent. But it’s not hard to empathize with the fear of deportation when our president spews vitriol against “illegal” immigrants and uses fear as a tool. More than two-dozen cities and states, including Oregon, are filing lawsuits to remove the question. The challenges have a real legal basis. I hope they are more than protest.
In the meantime, I look forward to 2022 – the year that, according to the 72-year privacy law, the 1950 Census data will be released. If I am still breathing, I will have outlived the lifespan expected of me in 1952. It will be interesting to see what sociologists make of 1950 in retrospect. Maybe I’ll discover some long lost relative online. But that’s another story.
(Still curious about the Census? There's lots more at the official site of the U.S. Census Bureau.)