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2020 census not first to offend

The prospect that the 2020 census will seek to determine whether residents of the United States are citizens has many in an uproar. For various reasons, if the next enumeration of the people asks about citizenship, large numbers will oppose it.


For those who tend to demonize the 2020 census, however, a look to the past may provide a bit of relief. At least it won’t question whether or not one is “idiotic.”


The United States began to count its residents in 1790, when George Washington was president. The process continued every ten years, and in 1850 it made a major leap into the lives of the citizenry.


Instead of listing just the head of household and then simply counting everyone else, as it had done for 60 years, in 1850, the census named everyone in the house, and broadened its inquiry. It not only wanted to know everyone’s name, it asked for age, sex, color, occupation, value of one’s home, birthplace, marital status, and whether one could read or write. After that, came the kicker. The census taker wanted to know if anyone in the house was “deaf, dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, a pauper, or a convict.”


The succession of enumerations continued in the same manner. 1860 mirrored 1850, but in 1870, the government wanted to know where your parents were born, if you were a male citizen and weather you had been prohibited from voting. Apparently, one’s mental condition was not an issue that year.


However, in 1880, the residents were pummeled with questions again. The government wanted to know if one was “blind, deaf, dumb, idiotic, insane, maimed, crippled, bedridden, or otherwise disabled.”


The original 1890 census burned, but by 1900, the government had once again lost its curiosity about one’s health — mental and physical. In place of that, the census zeroed in on citizenship. If one was not born in the United States, the census asked when that person immigrated to the U.S. and whether or not he/she was naturalized.


In 1910, curiosity increased. There were a number of questions about one’s work and whether one was a survivor of the Union or Confederate Army. The census also wanted to know if you were “deaf or dumb” and if blind, did that condition obtain in both eyes or just one?


Health problems were dropped in 1920, but citizenship and “mother tongue” hopped to the fore. Not only did the census want to know what language you spoke, it wanted to know what language your parents spoke. Also, if you were not born in the U.S., were you an “alien” or “naturalized?”


The 1930 census mirrored the 1920 census, and the1940 count lost interest in one’s health. However, one’s employment and income had the government’s interest. The census wanted to know if one was working, and if not, was that person seeking a job? The census also wanted to know the “amount of money, wages, or salary received (including commissions)”


The law does not allow for the public to delve into any census after 1940. Seventy-two years must have elapsed before a census can be made public.  


In the meantime, one can anticipate the coming census and reflect on how it might not be so bad after all.