The history and impact of the U.S. Census

When you’re a census expert, you know what to expect.

“Every 10 years, there’s a flurry of people paying very close attention, and I have my Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame,” says Margo Anderson, a distinguished professor emerita of history and urban studies who has spent some 40 years researching the United States Census. “The more controversial the census becomes, the more people look to put the issue in perspective.”

The census is how the federal government fulfills its decennial constitutional responsibility to count every person in the United States. Anderson feels a responsibility to explain its workings and impact to a wider audience. Her book “The American Census” was the first social history of the institution when it was published in 1988. A revised edition was released in 2015.

Anderson specializes in quantitative social history and “the politics of numbers.” Her latest project traces how the census helped develop the field of data science – and how the census almost created that field when it was first conducted in 1790 – thanks to its focus on collecting massive amounts of data and extracting knowledge from it.

She says the census is no stranger to controversy. For example, the 1920 census showed that, for the first time ever, more people lived in cities than rural areas. The resulting arguments over how to allot representation took up the entire ensuing decade, and no reapportionment was ever done based on that census.

A more recent census controversy centered around the push by President Donald Trump’s administration to ask census respondents if they were citizens of the United States – a move that was blocked by a 2019 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

“It would have been a recipe for bad statistics,” Anderson says, explaining that the Census Bureau has learned over 200 years that any question on the form has to be thoroughly researched and tested. That wasn’t the case with the citizenship question, she says, and failing to provide a reasoned explanation of why the question was being added violated the Administrative Procedure Act.

“Census numbers move political power around the country, shifting resources from communities that are losing population or growing slowly to those that are growing faster, all the way down to the local level,” Anderson says. Because of that, even though statistics should be nonpartisan, questions often arise after census counts.

“The losers from those resource shifts ask if the enterprise was fair, if everyone was counted,” she says. “And that questioning means that Americans will always pay close attention to their census, if only once a decade.”