Sunday, March 21, 2010

Spying on the Past, from the Future

The 2010, and every, decennial census is extremely important. Period. Apparently, some people are tempted––or even compelled––to ignore it as a little act of rebellion against what, Authority? Government Intrusiveness? But heavens, if you got the standard form, as I did, please enlighten me as to what information is being requested of you that is not already readily accessible to the government, and a whole lot of other people. Every year you give more intimate information to the government in your tax return than you will in the 2010 census. The fact is, at least in the context of the census, the government has little interest in its citizens as individuals, given that there are approximately 308,910,559 of us as of this writing. Yet every individual has to be accounted for, and the only way for the ever-changing data to be usable is to collect them as a “snapshot in time,” in this case, between March and the beginning of April, 2010.

Commonly made, and valid, civic arguments to encourage participation include things you may not personally care about: accurate populations counts are necessary to determine the number of delegates to the House of Representatives; the number and ages of children in a household help local governments anticipate what school resources will be needed in years to come; the age structure of a population in any given locale allows projections for allocating services for seniors, for instance. How about roads and access? That may not matter much to you either.

But there are other good reasons to answer the census. Academic researchers, such as demographers, sociologists, historians and economic historians, scholars of social service administration, political scientists, and many others, will soon have access to aggregate, de-identified data to examine myriad scientific questions. Here’s a partial list of area studies that depend on good census data: age and gender structures; aging; business demography; ethnicity/race and cultural pluralism; emigration/immigration; economic mobility; geographic mobility; poverty/welfare; labor force participation and employment; marriage, divorce and family; ecology and environmental studies. The list goes on. Without accurate information, inquiries into current and historical human processes can’t be accurately conducted. Since science informs (or should inform) public policy, why would anyone want to intentionally subvert the census?

But finally, there are highly gratifying personal reasons for responding promptly and truthfully to the census. Although the privacy of individual respondents is guaranteed now, in 72 years, by law, all information from the 2010 census will be made publicly available. I personally am not worried that 72 years from now it will be possible to look back and see that as of the date of the 2010 census, I was 59 years old. What in fact disconcerts me is that in the 2010 standard form, which appears obsessed with race/ethnic self-identification and little else, that information of great potential value to our heirs as well as to scientists, and in turn to policy-makers, is not being universally collected.

After my mother died and, coincidentally a few years later after reconnecting with some members of my father’s family, I became much more curious about my parents’ personal histories. I delved into the historic U.S. censuses meticulously digitized by, a for-profit business rooted in the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) that makes genealogy and other historic research extremely easy.

What I found was a treasure trove for verifying what my mother had told me about her life––at least through 1930, the most recently-released historic census––and in documenting things she herself did not know about her own parents and grandparents. Since my father and his father, about whom I am especially curious, did not arrive in the U.S. until 1936, I have to wait until 2012 to spy on their lives. Where did they live at the time? Who did they live with? Was my paternal grandfather, who divorced my father’s mother, remarried already, or will I have to wait until 2022 to answer that question?

So what else did and will these late-19th and early 20th century people-counts reveal to me? I have been able to pin down much more detail about Eliette Adonicam, the beloved cook in my grandparents’ home in Puerto Rico. I have been able to narrow down the years during which my mother’s little sister, Louise Edwina, must have died, something my mother had not been able to recall, a child herself when it happened. Louise was there, with the rest of the family, in 1920. In 1930, the little girl was missing from the list of household residents. I learned who my mother’s maternal great-grandfather was, and confirmed he was born in England. In 1900, my mother’s paternal grandfather, at the age of only 48, was “invalid” or disabled for work.*  The list of details in the 1880–1930 censuses that are greatly revealing goes on and on. Here they are, in 1930; of course the form was in Spanish as they were living in Puerto Rico at the time:

It turns out that many of the things of personal interest to me are also of importance, in far larger samples,  of course,  to scientists. For example, censuses of the past recorded the occupation of each resident in a home. This year’s does not do that. So how will economists of the future reconstruct relationships between household composition, geographical location, and employment, for example? Of course the developers of the census are not oblivious to the need for this kind of data, and have developed a more complex and broadly meaningful set of questions to be administered in separate waves of questionnaires, the American Community Survey (that will also have a version for Puerto Rico, incidentally). But these questions are being asked of a much smaller, and a selected, sample of the population, and thus will omit millions of important answers. Here’s an example: The work of the Center for Population Economics, under direction of Nobel-laureate Robert Fogel, involves linking individual Union Army veterans to their particular records in the U.S. census from 1840 through 1930 (except for 1890, the paper schedules of which went up in flames in 1921), to answer questions such as how does the environment, (easy to characterize even historically), in which one spends various stages of life, impact later-life health? (Read more about the project here.) What about occupations, from which we can ask, what long-term impacts on health, labor force participation, and longevity, did categories like "laborer" versus "banker" have? How about home value, as a proxy for household wealth? Without being able to access such information, collected in censuses of the past, for the 40-thousand-plus individual Union Army veterans in the CPE's sample, these questions and many more couldn’t even be asked.
*Here are the details from my mother's mother's natal household in 1900:

My grandmother is identified as "Mamie C" (Mary Christine) with her father John Cullin and her sisters, Anne, Elizabeth, and Catharine.  So now I know mother's grandmother was deceased by that time. And here are the sisters in more corporal form, at just about that same time. My grandmother, who remained close to her sisters throughout their lives, is on the left:

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