Inside the U.S. Census Bureau Part 2: Beginnings, Costs and Functions

About the United States Census Bureau, a look at how it started, what it costs and what functions and services it provides.

Inside the Census Bureau: 1, 2, 3, 4 . . . and Counting . . .

Who said Go? Article I, Section 2, of the Constitution authorized the census. Representation in Congress, it said, shall be at the rate of at least one member for each State, and the number shall not exceed one for each 30,000 citizens. Further, the enumeration shall be taken in 1790 and each 10 years thereafter. Today, with membership in the House of Representatives set at 435 and frozen there, each congressman represents an average of 465,000 constituents.

What's the tab for the job? The 1st census of 1790 was relatively simple and inexpensive. The findings, published in one volume of 56 pages, cost about $44,000, or just over a penny for each person counted. By comparison, the census of 1970 cost $247,653,000 , was put out in 15,000 separate publications totaling 200,000 pages, and cost about $1.22 per head. Special recounts: For disgruntled towns who feel they've been shorted and thereby cheated of a greater share of tax revenues to be allocated, the Bureau does the work over. The cost: From $20 to count 100 people, to $14,200 for 40,000. But it will recount any disputed census for anybody--for a price.

What else goes on? Francis Walker, director of the 1880 census, began the 1st extensive expansion into activities other than a simple head count. Walker accumulated statistics on population characteristics such as general health, overall literacy, and the level of employment.

Within 10 years, a crisis occurred. Walker's department was unable to process the vast quantities of raw data using the manual bookkeeping and accounting techniques then available. He arranged for a contest to be staged, to produce a machine that would handle tabulations mechanically. The competition was won, hands-down, by Herman Hollerith, a young Census Office engineer, who transformed the punch-card information system used by Jacquard loom-weavers into a workable electric tabulating machine. From that date on, keeping up with the work coming in became a simple problem of improving the equipment.

Hollerith's influence still continues. In 1896 he organized the Tabulating Machine Company, and it later became a founding pillar for the International Business Machines combine. IBM computers today are responsible for processing Census Bureau data.

Besides its well-known "o" census, taken every 10 years, the Bureau conducts over 100 lesser polls, at weekly, monthly, biyearly, and other intervals as necessary. In 1975 a Congress-approved survey--to take the U.S.'s middecade pulse--will occur, covering a sample 1 million households and costing $45 million. In years ending with "2" and "7," there are extensive surveys on transportation. In the "3" and "8" years, the emphasis is on data to assist in economic planning. In the "4" and "9" years, the major analyses for agriculture are made. Much of the information comes from U.S. businesses, big and little, since these, too, are required by law to answer the questions of the Census Bureau.

Nearly all of the Government's statistics (98%) come from the Census Bureau's work, regardless of what agency releases them. The raw data is digested and spewed out in thousands of ways: new unemployment rates for the month, cost-of-living changes, industrial production summaries, housing "starts," meat prices, man-in-the-street reaction to Government policies. It's all constantly derived from the enumerator's busy pencil.

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