Have I told you how much I love the Census? Jump in, let's go for a ride around the block of American democracy to count every single person living on it--babies, the young and the old, students and workers, single and married, rich, poor, and anxious members of the middle class, artists and bus drivers, wired and not, employed and unemployed, the uninsured sick and the covered healthy, military and civilian, homeless, incarcerated and free, citizens and immigrants, people of any religion, color, language or kind. And now it's over this time around, so let me say a few good words on what it's all about.
The Census is the closest we come to giving true, timely meaning to "We the People." It's a quintessentially American pursuit, dreamed up and penned on paper by the Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention, this "enumeration" process of counting the particulars to understand the whole. The first Census, carried out in 1790, was directed by Thomas Jefferson. It held up a mirror to an energetic nation, a brilliant mosaic then as well as now, inventing itself. African-Americans were in the first census, both enslaved and free blacks, but their lower social status was reflected by the lack of names for each and every one. In fact, it wasn't until the 1870 Census, the first taken after the Civil War, that African-Americans were considered citizens with recorded names to go with their numbers. The pre-1870 silence was broken; family genealogies and histories at last began to speak more clearly across time. For historians, names to go with occupations and addresses meant precious identities could be recovered, say, for a study of the community of Chesapeake watermen back in the late 19th century.
Jefferson's direction of the first Census is a little-known fact. That's a shame, for it may have helped quell the tide of anti-government hostility and threats many Census 2010 workers encountered on the job. Doors were slammed in their faces, dogs snarled at and bit them, and some were even run off private property with a shotgun. Jefferson, the Founding Father most fearful of government intrusion into people's lives and liberty and all that jazz, understood that a proper census was essential to political fair play in dividing up each state's seats in Congress. More than that, the inquiring social scientist in him wished to know the answer to who dwelled where in the early Republic. Take Nantucket Island, in 1790 a rising whaling capital. The answer: about 5,000 whites, predominantly Quakers, and just a handful of native Wampanoag Indians.
The first Census was a wonder to behold, carried out by federal marshals. So was the last, though ours tells a sadder story. The sheer scope and ambition involved in organizing this endeavor (every 10 years) of counting us, in cities and plains, by the millions, is breathtaking. I remember explaining the Census 2000 methods to a fascinated journalist from Bosnia and taking him to the enormous nerve center of Baltimore's operation. As a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, it was my job to be there, but it was also my pleasure. I was actually proud to see the job the federal government was doing in counting this city populace of about 650,000 souls in the last peaceful and prosperous year of the Clinton presidency. The Democratic mayor, now Maryland's governor, Martin O'Malley, was happy with that number because it showed the city had slowed losing residents at a rapid rate. Once an industrial powerhouse, the waterfront city of Baltimore hit its peak population in mid-century. In 1950, it weighed in at 900,000 residents, census figures show. Baltimore before the Civil War had the largest population of free blacks.
These are good things to know to trace the ebb and flow of our own back stories. And even in an age of profound distress, economic and otherwise, the Census can be a morale-booster as an excellent temporary employer to help make ends meet for all manner of people. Unfortunately, all those well-paying government jobs for census-takers are now being phased out. They include college graduates and middle-aged job seekers who will be out in the cold of this 9.5 percent unemployment-rate economy again. While they enjoyed getting to know their communities better, few look forward to being on their own again, missing a sense of mission. Counting 300 million people (more or less) creates motivation and dedication among its civilian foot soldiers. It's a shame to say good-bye to people who are serving their country, too, if not in uniform.
To prescient Republicans in the George W. Bush era, geniuses who decided to skip the "occupation" question for Census 2010 forms and visits, it's as if you knew relatively few would have an answer ready on that point. That's the tragic flaw of this census, that we won't have a well of rich first-hand reporting on how people across America fended for themselves and fed their families in these hard times, the worst in memory for many. This disservice to ordinary peoples' lives and our collective social history, like past blind spots in the Census, shall not soon be forgotten and forgiven.