BROOKE GLADSTONE: In October, Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana proposed adding a question to the upcoming 2010 Census, asking residents whether or not they are citizens. Here he is on the floor of the Senate.
DAVID VITTER: I believe that when we use the Census for congressional redistricting for determining how many U.S. House seats each state gets, we should count citizens, but we should not count in that context non-citizens, including illegal aliens.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Vitter’s amendment would have required the U.S. Census Bureau to effectively change the forms, which had already been printed, so the Senate voted it down 60 to 39 along party lines. This isn't the first time controversy has erupted over the decennial ritual of tallying our nation’s population. In fact, around the time of the very first Census in 1790, George Washington wrote a letter to the statesman Governor Morris expressing concern that, quote:
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MAN (READING GEORGE WASHINGTON’S LETTER): “The real number will greatly exceed the official return because, from religious scruples, some would not give in their lists from an apprehension that it was intended as the foundation of attacks. Others concealed or diminished theirs. And from the indolence of the mass and want of activity in many of the deputy enumerators, numbers are omitted.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: D’Vera Cohn is a former Washington Post reporter who has covered the Census for many years. She says that controversy followed the count all through the 20th century.
D'VERA COHN: The Roosevelt administration was very interested in finding out more information about the living conditions of Americans, so they added a good many questions on finances, for example, asking Americans their income. They asked many questions about housing conditions, including plumbing in individual homes. All of it was intended to bolster the role of government in trying to solve social problems. But there were some people who were not pleased. In fact, an excerpt from an April 1940 New Yorker sketch – I don't know whether this is true or not, but it said, “A lady who lives in a hotel received the Census man cordially and answered all the questions. After asking, ‘Have you a bathtub,’ the enumerator, in the same official tone, asked, ‘Have you a pair of manicure scissors?’
[BROOKE LAUGHS] The lady said yes and waited for the next question. ‘Well, could I borrow them,” he asked. ‘There’s a hangnail been driving me nuts all day.’”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Now, the privacy issue continued to build. In 1960, an editor at The National Review was fined 100 dollars for not filling out the form.
D'VERA COHN: One editor declared he wasn't going to fill out his form. He declared war on what he called a “snoopdom.” Of course, The National Review is on the conservative side, and they've long been opposed to turning in any more than just the basic information, which would be number of people in any given household.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The 1990 Census is the first one that you personally covered as a reporter for The Washington Post. There was the so-called “long form” which [LAUGHS] got longer, and many in the media declared this Census, the 1990 Census, to be a kind of failure, right?
D'VERA COHN: That's right. It was a public relations nightmare in 1990 because the Census’ own research showed that it hadn't made a dent in what’s called the undercount. That is, we know the Census doesn't count everybody but they keep hoping that the size of that undercount will shrink. Well, it didn't shrink in 1990, and that was widely reported. There were stories, for example, in USA Today about how some of these upscale gated communities were not allowing census-takers to come in and distribute the forms, Barbara Walters saying that she felt that it was too tough to fill out her form so she wasn't going to fill it out. After the count numbers came out, there was a front-page photograph in The New York Times showing an apartment building in Queens where people said that they had not been included in the Census. It turned out later that they had been counted, but they were listed on the wrong block. So all of these mishaps, I guess, led to a kind of a black eye for the 1990 Census.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, what’s going to households in 2010 is something that they're billing as 10 questions in 10 minutes.
D'VERA COHN: Ten questions, 10 minutes. It’s essentially the short form, with basic demographics such as age, race and, if there’s more than one person in the household, how those people are related to each other. But the Census Bureau is still struggling with how to respond to this new media environment. They're putting themselves out there on social media and they're blogging, and so forth, but it remains to be seen whether, especially in the heated-up Census environment that'll really start to accelerate starting next year, whether they'll be able to keep up with the incoming fire.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: D’Vera, thank you very much.
D'VERA COHN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: D’Vera Cohn is a senior writer at the Pew Research Center. And now briefly, a census-taker’s nightmare, courtesy of Tim Meadows, Christopher Walken and Saturday Night Live.
CHRISTOPHER WALKEN AS MR. LEONARD: Hi.
TIM MEADOWS AS CENSUS TAKER: Yes, Mr. Leonard, I'm with the U.S. Census Bureau. How many people live in this residence?
CHRISTOPHER WALKEN AS MR. LEONARD: Oh boy, that’s a good question.
[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] I'm bad with numbers, maybe 80.
TIM MEADOWS AS CENSUS TAKER: Eighty people live in this apartment?
CHRISTOPHER WALKEN AS MR. LEONARD: Seems high, doesn't it?