Getting A Sense Of The Census On this day in 1790, President George Washington signed a measure authorizing the first U.S. census. Host Scott Simon asks with Carnegie Mellon statistics professor Stephen Fienberg to help us understand what the census was like then — and what it's like now.
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Getting A Sense Of The Census

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Getting A Sense Of The Census

Getting A Sense Of The Census

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

On this day in 1790, George Washington signed a measure authorizing the first U.S. census. So we've asked Stephen Fienberg to help us understand what the census was like then, what it's like now. Professor Fienberg teaches at the Carnegie Mellon University. He joins us from member station WQED in Pittsburgh. Professor Fienberg, thanks very much for being with us.

Professor STEPHEN FIENBERG (Carnegie Mellon University): My pleasure.

SIMON: What was the first census like in 1790?

Prof. FIENBERG: Well, it was done under the supervision of Thomas Jefferson, who was secretary of state, but he had only six people working for him. And so, he used U.S. marshals and their assistants. And they numbered about 635 people, and they fanned out across the then-small nation. And it was a bit of a ragtag enterprise.

There wasn't much time to plan. There weren't details about how the count should occur. And so, the early results were still up in the air, and there had to be an extension granted in order to get the numbers in.

SIMON: I'm interested in this, too. I mean, it seems to me when I was a youngster, the census asked questions, obviously - how many people live in your house? How many bedrooms? How many telephones? Now are they asking questions like how many laptop computers? Do you have Tivo? Do you have a problem with fine lines and wrinkles around your eyes, that sort of thing?

Prof. FIENBERG: Absolutely not. And, in fact, the 2010 census is going to truly revert to a very small core of questions. In 2000, there were two parts to the census, with age, sex, race, Hispanic origin, household structure, whether or not you owned or rented. Then there was something called the long form, which went to a one-in-six sample nationwide. And it had 53 questions, but every one of them was mandated by one law or another.

And that part of the census has now gone away and - being replaced by an ongoing sample survey called the American Community Survey, which has taken place regularly over the decade. And so, the census this time around is simply focusing on those core questions.

SIMON: Stephen Fienberg teaches statistics at Carnegie Mellon University. He's also co-author of the book "Who Counts: The Politics of Census-Taking in Contemporary America." Thanks so much for being with us.

Prof. FIENBERG: It's been my pleasure.

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