The U.S. Census: A History Of Mistrust

Brian Naylor, NPR correspondent
Roberto Suro, journalism professor at USC Annenberg
Sunshine Hillygus, associate professor of political science, Duke University

The U.S. Census must count every person in the country every ten years. It's in the Constitution. But some advocacy groups, from conservatives to Latinos, have concerns about whom the government should count and what questions should be asked.

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The Constitution requires the government to count all the people, so every 10 years, workers fan out to collect information. They start with the number of people in each household, then go on to ask their age and sex, and in 2000, the census asked a long list of questions.

Analysts crunch the answers to learn more about who we are, what we do, where we live and much more. And the census provides fundamental information the government uses to distribute resources and power.

Will New York lose a congressional district next census? Will California gain another one, or maybe Nevada? With that much at stake, who counts, how they do it and what they ask have always been important questions. Minorities complain they are systematically undercounted. Conservatives protest plans to estimate population rather than actually counting it. Latinos worry the census data may be used to locate, identify and possibly deport people here illegally. Some protest what they regard as government intrusion. And earlier this month, a part-time census worker was found dead in Kentucky with the word "fed" scrawled across his chest.

We'll get an update on that in a moment, but we also want to hear from you. Do you mistrust the census? Why? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, moviemaker Michael Moore on his latest, "Capitalism: A Love Story." But first, we begin with NPR's Brian Naylor, who joins us from Lexington, Kentucky. Brian, thanks very much.


CONAN: And there are some gruesome details in this case.

NAYLOR: Yeah, the census worker, his name was Bill Sparkman. He was 51 years old, and he was found dead of - all that police will say at this moment is of unnatural causes. There was a rope attached to his neck, and he was not exactly hanging - his feet were on the ground, but the rope was attached to a tree. And as you pointed out earlier, the word "fed" was written across his chest by a red marker, and his census ID was taped to his neck.

Now, I just want to say at the very beginning that police have so far not even ruled this a homicide yet. They're still awaiting the coroner's final report, and so we don't know that this is related to his duties as a census worker. But there is - there are many who suspect that that is, in fact, the case.

CONAN: All right, earlier today, I think his son said he's been frustrated by the failure of authorities, including the FBI, to identify this as a murder. He says he has no doubt about that, but again, we're going to have to await official word from the authorities there in Kentucky. How has the town reacted to the death?

NAYLOR: Well, there's a lot of head-scratching. I mean, it's quite a mystery. This is an area in Kentucky, it's a rural area. There's a high unemployment rate. There's - it's relatively poor. It's kind of a hardscrabble area. There's been, you know, coal mining in the past, and now a lot of logging is done.

It's also an area where there has been some amount of crime. There are a lot of people who run meth labs in their homes. There are fewer people, but some people, who grow marijuana plants in the forest. It's - the body was found within the Daniel Boone National Forest, and we were there yesterday. It's a very, very isolated area. It's a place that you'd have to know exists in order to - it's not something you'd just sort of stumble across.

And so people, I think, are a little bit defensive because they feel that this is painting their part of the country as a - giving it a black eye. It's an area that people are extremely friendly. You know, you drive down the street, and they'll wave at strangers. So there's a lot of - there's a lot of soul searching going on right now. No one's quite sure what happened here, but people do feel that there have been - they feel proud about their area, and they're a little upset that it's gotten a lot of negative publicity.

CONAN: And the arrival of a bunch of reporters is not always that welcome, either, I can imagine. But is this identified as an area where there's a lot of anti-government sentiment?

NAYLOR: Well, the folks that we talked to say that's not the case at all. I talked to the police chief of Manchester, Kentucky, which is the town next to where the body was found, and he said in the 20, 25 years he's been on the job, he can't recall a single anti-government protest. In fact, people here are very reliant on the government. As I mentioned, there's a high unemployment rate. There are a lot of people who collect unemployment checks, who are on welfare, who collect disability, Social Security income, and so people here probably - excuse me - are grateful for what the government gives them. It's not an area where there's any strong anti-government movement that's been apparent at all.

CONAN: And what is the next step in the investigation?

NAYLOR: Well, police have been very tight-lipped about it. They're waiting to see the final report from the medical examiner. The FBI has been called in to assist in the investigation, along with the Kentucky State Police. They have been trying to track Mr. Sparkman's whereabouts the days before he died.

He was found dead on September 10th, and - or I should say he was reported missing September 10th. His body wasn't discovered until two days later, and so there's some concern that the trail might have grown a little cold. They're trying to find out where he visited. Was he on census business at the time previous to - before he was reported missing? And so there's a lot of ends to the investigation, but police aren't talking very much about what they know or where they're going.

CONAN: Again, we're talking about Bill Sparkman, the part-time census worker found dead in Kentucky earlier this month with the word "fed" scrawled across his chest in felt marker, ruled an unnatural death thus far, but not yet ruled a homicide, Brian Naylor down there reporting on the story. Thanks very much for being with us today.

NAYLOR: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And joining us now as we continue to talk about the politics of counting Americans - again, we don't know for sure whether the Sparkman case has anything to do with that yet or not, though it is suspicious. But joining us now is Roberto Suro. He's a professor at USC Annenberg School of Journalism, and joins us from the studios at NPR West. And good of you to be with us today.

Professor ROBERTO SURO (Annenberg School of Journalism, University of Southern California): Good to be with you.

CONAN: And how do people view the census? It seems to be like a natural progression of government. Everybody needs to know how many people there are and where they live.

Prof. SURO: Yeah, I mean, it's not been a source of real controversy in terms of broad popular opinion. There's been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and sometimes some real battles on Capitol Hill in Washington over the census. But I don't - I think it's not - we don't see a really broad reaction against it specifically in public opinion. And in managing the response rates, the number of people who mail back their forms, one of the concerns in the Census Bureau over time has been that loss of confidence in the government, a general decline in esteem for the federal government, has been one of the factors, one of several factors that produced a reduction in the number of people who will just follow the instructions and mail back their form when they get it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And how has that number declined over the years?

Prof. SURO: It was up around 80 percent in 1970, which was the first time they did a mail census, and it's dropped in 2000 to about 65 percent. And, of course, we'll wait and see now. That makes it a much more expensive proposition, because when people don't mail back their forms, then the census has to go try and knock on doors to find out what the information is for that household.

CONAN: Well, we want to hear from our listeners today. We're going to be exploring how people respond to the census. Are they worried about it? Is it intrusive? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: Let's begin with Bob, Bob with us from Aberdeen in South Dakota.

BOB (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

BOB: I remember during the 2000 census that I was sent a form, and they wanted to know if I had any guns, how many and in what rooms of the house I kept them in. And I found that that was well outside the scope of the census. I understand we need the information, and I'm no pro-gun crazy nut or anything like that, but I just twinged, you know, when I read that. And I'll just listen -take the response to that on the radio.

CONAN: Okay, Bob. Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. And that was part of a - well, I guess controversial long-form questionnaire that was sent out in 2000.

Prof. SURO: Yeah, I don't believe it was. I'll double-check, but I'm 99 percent sure the long form asked about a lot of things, including indoor plumbing and how long it takes you to commute to work, but I don't believe it asks whether you have firearms or where they're kept. In fact, you know, nobody really knows exactly how many firearms there are in the United States. But I think Bob may have gotten a form from somebody else.

CONAN: Somebody maybe trying to be provocative.

Prof. SURO: Perhaps.

CONAN: Okay. There are also, from time to time, the census does send out other kinds of inquiries. Might that have been part of it?

Prof. SURO: Not that I'm familiar with.

CONAN: Okay. All right. And that census, though, the long-form census in 2000 was controversial because a lot of people thought, well, for one thing, it took a lot of time to answer the questions.

Prof. SURO: Yeah, and it's been revised for about - going back to 1940, the federal government had this extra sample. In 2000, it was about 18 million households, which got this much lengthier questionnaire with very detailed questions aimed at information required by specific government programs: your veteran status, as I said your household plumbing, commutes to work, all kinds of matters.

That's now been dropped. And since 2000, the census has been involved in a continuous survey of about two million interviews a year, called the American Community Survey, with basically the same questions that used to be on the long form of the census. And that compiles results over time. The survey is conducted in every county of the country every year, and they're accumulated to produce the kind of detailed data that the long form used to produce.

CONAN: So a statistical survey of statistically significant analysis, that sort of thing.

Prof. SURO: Yes. Exactly.

CONAN: We'll talk more with Roberto Suro in a moment about why so many people dislike the census. And up next, how a simple count of heads got so politicized, and more of your calls: 800-989-8255. Email us: Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Later this hour, Michael Moore stops by to talk about his latest hot-button documentary, "Capitalism: A Love Story." Right now, we're surveying the census and the level of animosity directed toward the once-a-decade count of Americans.

Some groups are calling for a boycott of next year's survey. We'll talk more about the politicization of the census in a moment, and we want to hear from you. Do you mistrust the census? If so, why? 800-989-8255. Email us: And you can respond - you can go to our Web site, Click on TALK OF THE NATION, and join the conversation there, as well.

Our guest is Roberto Suro, journalism professor at University of Southern California-Annenberg, and he studied the history of the census. And it has been - that history, Roberto Suro, has been particularly controversial regarding minority groups and, most recently, regarding Latinos.

Prof. SURO: Yeah, indeed. There are a couple of controversies, one over the extent of which the census accurately counts minorities. There's some controversy as to whether everyone should be counted, particularly people who are in the country without authorization. And now we have kind of the proposal of a protest boycott on behalf of some Latino leaders.


Prof. SURO: Well, this boycott is not aimed at the census, per se. It's not a protest against the census. It's a protest against the perception that the Obama administration hasn't kept its promises on immigration reform. And the threat is if you don't follow through with the promise of a legalization program and changed enforcement strategy, we'll promote a boycott among Latinos all over the country against the census.

And that gets to one of the reasons why it's always been controversial, because the census translates into political power in a very direct way because it determines how congressional seats are apportioned.

CONAN: And other resources are distributed around the country regarding not just the number of congressional seats, but in terms of how much help goes to how much people, no matter where they live.

Joining us now is Sunshine Hillygus, a professor of political science at Duke University, with us from a studio at Duke in Durham, North Carolina. Nice to have you with us today.

Professor SUNSHINE HILLYGUS (Political Science, Duke University): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And how - we heard just about what's at stake, obviously political power and resources, wealth and power. It's pretty obvious how things can get politicized.

Prof. HILLYGUS: Absolutely. And I think the thing that we have seen is that it's been politicized both in terms of different groups being concerned about whether they are accurately counted, but also it's been engulfed into partisan politics in recent decades. And that's where you become concerned about whether we can accurately count all groups or not.

CONAN: And the partisan debate, I remember, was over a proposal that instead of actually counting every single person, the census could estimate the population in various places.

Prof. HILLYGUS: Right. And part of what happened is really dating back to the, you know, 1940s census. With the draft, it became obvious that some groups were not being counted, particularly African-Americans, were four times as likely not to be counted as white males. And this became obvious once we saw the draft numbers.

And over time, that undercount worsened, and it became embroiled in minority politics in the sense that because wealth and power is related to census numbers, you want to get an accurate count. But it also became clear from the two political parties that if you were to try and adjust numbers, that it might have disproportionate advantages for one side. And so although the talk has always been much more high-minded than that, you know, it's talked in terms of fair and accurate numbers, on the Republican and on the Democratic side, it is, you know, getting the numbers correct. Really, at the heart of it, is concern that adjustments or the undercount could disproportionately help one side or the other.

CONAN: All right. Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Let's turn to Kelly. Kelly's with us - not far away in Durham, North Carolina.

KELLY (Caller): Yes, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

KELLY: First of all, I'd like to send my condolences out to the census worker in Kentucky and the situation that that community is suffering through. I, myself, have been in the same employment position as that gentleman, a temporary field worker for the census, traveling around various places in North Carolina, and I have seen a wide variety of responses from the public to, you know, gratitude. Yes, we know about the census. We'll be sure to fill out the form - to suspicion to outright hostility.

One issue that's new in this upcoming 2010 census is the use of the handheld computers and the use of GPS. And a lot of individuals, in the recent work we did this spring here in North Carolina, many people were highly suspicious of these small computers that we were using. They're concerned that the federal government is, you know, putting a tag on each person's household by the use of GPS. The more rural areas you get into, the more suspicion you see.

I just hope that, you know, people do realize how important each individual's participation is in, you know, being counted so that, you know, the politics of - you know, the outcome of the census taking can be fairly distributed through the country and just ask everyone, hey, you know, just give us a break. We're all just citizens of the country taking on a temporary responsibility that serves everyone.

You know, the census workers are sworn to keep private anything they see on anyone's private property. We're not an enforcement agency. We're not in a position to, you know, tell on people. We're just simply there asking for their cooperation in being counted.

CONAN: Robert Suro, can you help us out? Why are these computers being used, also GPS?

Prof. SURO: Yeah, this is - what happens first in the census, and it's been completed now, is an inventory of all the addresses in the country to know where to send the census form and then be able to track whether a census form has come back from that address.

So a lot - there's this big field effort involved in going out and making sure that the census has a fix on every address that's where people live in the country so that they can send them the form.

CONAN: Okay. Kelly, thank you very much for the call. We appreciate your kind words for the family of the slain worker in Kentucky, and good luck to you.

KELLY: Thank you. Thank you for the conversation today.

CONAN: Right, bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Josh, Josh with us from Holyoke in Massachusetts.

JOSH (Caller): Hi, there.

CONAN: Hi, there.

JOSH: I'm - I was recently working for the city clerk here. While we were doing our part to encourage people to return their materials to the census, we asked everyone who did not return their forms to go ahead and fill out an affidavit when they came to vote in our preliminary election recently because we do value people's participation both for research reasons and for allocating state and federal dollars. So…

CONAN: When you say to fill out an affidavit when they came to vote, declaring that they did not fill out the census, or what?

JOSH: Well, the idea was two-fold. One was to make sure our voting rolls are accurate because if they didn't return the declaration to the census, then there was a chance that they weren't there anymore. And so they needed to declare that, in fact, they were still continuous, valid residents. And the idea was then that we could pass that information on to the census so that they would know that, in fact, they were a valid resident.

CONAN: Sunshine Hillygus, can you help us out? That's one consequence of not filling out the census form. Are there others?

Prof. HILLYGUS: Well, I mean, there's a number of consequences for not filling out the form. I mean, at the end of the day, it is required by law, and so it is much cheaper if people will simply return the mail-back form, but we are then obligated to go count at somebody's house and continue to show up and knock on their door in an attempt to get the numbers.

I think it's worth pointing out that the reasons people don't cooperate with the census are a little bit complicated, that there's actually a difference between privacy concerns and confidentiality concerns, and that those different concerns vary across different groups. And so a lot of the issues that have been talked about among conservative activists have really just been - dealt with government intrusiveness. It's not any of the government's business, and that really is a concern about privacy.

In contrast, illegal immigrants and others are worried that perhaps the government would share their information, and that's really a confidentiality concern. And both of those need to be addressed from the Census Bureau in the sense that they have to, you know, alleviate both of those concerns in order to maximize census participation.

CONAN: Josh, thanks very - go ahead, Roberto, I'm sorry.

Prof. SURO: Yeah, just one small note. In addition to all the important points that Professor Hillygus just made, it's worth remembering that there are other factors that the census has identified as important in determining whether people will return the mail census, and they include people who are not living in classic married-couple-with-children households…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JOSH: …single people, single mothers, people who have recently moved. There's some association with income, certainly, with English ability, so - and to the extent that our population has changed and is less - a smaller share of it is living in sort of traditional households over long periods of time, you see some decline in the participation. And with this recession, with a lot of people - lives in turmoil, people having lost houses, it's a further complicating factor.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Josh(ph), thanks very much for the call.

JOSH: You're welcome. We do have a lot of non-English speakers and a lot of non-traditional houses. So I think that it is definitely a factor here. Thanks very much.

CONAN: Oh, we got this email from a non-traditional house in Buffalo, New York. This is from Cindy(ph). As a lesbian, I welcome the census. My partner and I have been together for 23 years and got married in Canada last year. I think it's important that as many people as possible know we exist and that we matter. I just don't know how I'll answer the married question because the U.S. does not recognize our license from Canada.

And that goes to another question. This from Neal(ph) in St. Louis: Why doesn't the census recognize people of mixed races rather than requiring to choose one or the other? And Sunshine Hillygus, this has been a thorny question for some time.

Prof. HILLYGUS: It has. I mean, and part of this, again, goes back to, you know, the Census Bureau has really, you know, been under pressure to make sure and actually, you know, they are legally required to collect information in order to adhere to the Voting Rights Act. And because of the differential undercount where minorities are less likely to return - be counted than whites, this has really been at the heart of minority politics. And the question of, you know, who counts for different groups and how do you count mixed race has been something that the Census Bureau has been studying very carefully and adjusting through the years.

CONAN: We're talking about the politics of counting Americans. The census - the next one comes next year, 2010. And our guests are Roberto Suro, professor at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. He's with us from NPR's Culver City bureau, NPR West, and Sunshine Hillygus, an associate professor of political science at Duke, with us from a studio on a campus there at Duke University. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And let's get Adam(ph) on the line calling from South Bend, Indiana.

ADAM (Caller): Hello. And thank you for taking my call. First, I'd like to give my condolences to the families of the census worker. That's horrible. This is the first I've heard of it. Also, I'd like say thank you. I appreciate the input from your guests. I have a few points and I'll try to keep it brief. If it's - first of all, if it's a random survey, then how come they require that you give your first and last name and middle initial? And then they have some specific questions about income, which were already stated in the IRS when you file your taxes. So if you have - if they have your specific name, they can just look at your IRS records, you know, if it's - unless it's a random survey, then why do, you know, why did they need your name or whatever?

CONAN: I can answer that first one, Adam. It's not a random survey. They're trying to count every single person in the United States, not a random sample.

ADAM: Oh. Well, I was told it was a random sample. Okay. Well, thank you, then.

Prof. SURO: Yeah. Well, the questions on income come in the American Community Survey, which is not the full enumeration, but is the sample of two million households a year. So that may be one. And there are other government surveys -the current population survey produces the unemployment numbers every month that also ask people income information.

ADAM: Okay. The other - I had just two more points I'd like to make. In the future, would it be a possibility for the person being surveyed to opt out of the survey or is it - you absolutely will have to do it or you will be fined up to, like, what I was told, $5,000 if you decide you don't want to fill the survey out?

CONAN: Sunshine Hillygus?

Prof. HILLYGUS: Well, I mean, the census count is required by law. And although we could not do it without the volunteerism and cooperation, it just wouldn't be feasible without the voluntary cooperation of the American public. At the end of the day, it is required but largely not enforced. For other government surveys, they're not required by law and so you could opt out. But for the census, there is a need to get every single person counted for - even if it is just this very basic information.

And I would point out that some of the questions they ask, although they could get from other sources, they don't - they're needed for quality control purposes, to be able to check, to make sure there aren't duplicate records and so on. But, you know, with the removal of the long form, you know, really, the pitch of the Census Bureau is, this time around, that it's, you know, it's short. It won't take much time and it really is linked to so many fundamental, you know, government power and money.

CONAN: Adam, I'm going to move on. Thanks very much.

ADAM: Great. Thank you. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure. Bye-bye. Here's an email from Pamela(ph). We got this similar question from a lot of people. You ask if people trust the census. I'm close to my 50s and I have never been asked to fill out a census form nor has anyone ever come to my door to ask questions. How accurate is that? Roberto Suro?

Prof. SURO: Well, that's a - I'm sure the folks at the Census Bureau would love to know where this person lives, because that address has obviously escaped what is a, you know, a very extensive effort. The census is hiring 1.4 million temporary employees in the cycle of first trying to get all the addresses and then get back to them. So if they've missed her, that's saying something.

You know, there is undercount. I mean, that - and it's always - this is, as Professor Hiilygus was saying, this is a very contentious issue as to how to remedy it and who's undercounted the most. But there's an acknowledgement that there's an undercount, and there's statistical flaws in the census. But it's still a great deal less intrusive than it used to be when - in the first census, it was, and for a long time afterwards, it was a U.S. marshal who came to your door with a form...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SURO: ...and said, I want to enumerate everybody who's here and who actually had to draw judgments as to your race by the color of your skin and even in 1860 asked whether - had to answer whether the person was deaf and dumb, blind, idiotic, pauper or a convict.

CONAN: Those are judgments I'm not sure are within the purview of U.S. Marshals.

Prof. SURO: Well, it used to be - yeah. Somebody would come to your door and talk to you and then decide on the answer to that question.

CONAN: Well - provide some interesting answers. Anyway, thank you very much for your time today and I'm sure this is a subject to which we will return as the census approaches.

Roberto Suro at USC Annenberg School of Journalism and Sunshine Hillygus at Duke University, where she's an assistant professor of political science. Appreciate your time today. Thanks very much.

Prof. HILLYGUS: Thank you.

Prof. SURO: Thank you.

CONAN: Up next, Mr. Moore goes to Wall Street. Filmmaker, Michael Moore, joins us to talk abut his latest, "Capitalism: A Love Story." 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join the conversation. Email us: Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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