On Monday, the Census Bureau released the 1940 United States Census records on their website, offering insights into the state of the country after the Great Depression on the eve of World War II. By law, the Census Bureau must wait 72 years before releasing census data to the public, and the newly released information provides a snapshot of the United States from one single day—April 2, 1940.
The 1940 census went beyond the standard questions about name, age, relationship and occupation, asking about employment status, years of education, internal migration, and participation in New Deal programs among other things for the first time.
The release is fairly difficult to navigate, as it has not yet been fully digitized. Instead, the Census Bureau uploaded 3.8 million scanned images of the forms from 1940, and they are not searchable by name. In order to find information about a specific person, the new database only offers to narrow results down by enumeration district number, geographic areas assigned to each census taker. Crowd-sourced groups like the 1940 U.S. Census Community Project, FamilySearch International, and findmypast.com plan to use thousands of volunteers to digitize the newly released information in an effort to make them fully searchable.
Despite the difficulty in navigating the massive cache of documents, the 1940 census is already providing for some interesting contrasts with modern times. The United States of 1940 was less than half the size of the current country, and it also was drastically less racially diverse. Far more Americans ages 20-34 were married in 1940 than present times and, interestingly, the country had far less toilets and electricity back then. The income equality gap among men and women was large, as a woman in 1940 earned almost half of what her male counterparts earned.
You can start your search for your ancestors at the official 1940 Census website.