25 December 2007

UK: A sense of census

A great read on "Census sensitivity" in the UK's Economist magazine begins with a quote from the Torah and concludes with the somewhat humorous fact that 390,000 respondents to the 2001 UK census claimed they were Jedi (a la "Star Wars") in answer to a religion question.

"Go, number Israel from Beersheba even to Dan; and bring the number of them to me, that I may know it."

The article goes on to say it wasn't the first census described in the Bible, nor the last, although King David's order to his army commander, Joab, went against God's will and punishment followed, as 70,000 Israelites died of the plague.

Taking a census became known as the "sin of David" and, in 1634, Massachusetts Bay Colony Gov. John Winthrop estimated the population instead of taking a headcount.

In 1753, there was such violent opposition to a Census Bill in Britain, that a member of Parliament feared riots would ensue if the bill passed.

Usual reasons for a census were to learn how many people could be taxed (to raise money) or how many males were available as soldiers. Such data was valuable for the home country and its enemies; a mid-1700s Swedish census was classified a state secret.

According to the story, revolution was another reason to count people. The American war of independence created a new nation with separate states, people were moving around and the government required representation for each state.

The first Constitution-mandated American census was in 1790, and other countries - Denmark, England, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden - followed.

"Where government is oppressive, people want to keep out of censuses, lest information they provide is misused. Where government provides, people want to be in censuses, and to boost their numbers, in order to claim a larger share of the goodies."

The dark side of census taking:

Jewish genealogists are aware of census problems, such as the Nazis who used records of populations to round up Jews, and much earlier when the Russian Tzars were concerned about taxes.

Germans, says the article, are still uncomfortable about being counted, although the reunited country is planning its first census in 2011. It won't be a full count, but only a sample, with surnames to be deleted as quickly as possible and all personal data erased after experts have finished; no race or religion questions will be asked.

China's 2000 census is also highlighted, during which enumerators visited some 350 million households in 10 days, asking asking such personal questions as “How much did you pay for your home?” and “How often do you wash?” Citizens were upset when asked about sex and age - The government wanted to learn about gender imbalance and female infanticide.

"In early 2007 researchers found proof of what had long been suspected: that during the second world war the American census bureau had played a part in the internment of Japanese-Americans by passing some of their names and addresses to the secret service."

There is much more to this long article including a bit about census-taking under Stalin, apportioning US legislative representation, hidden populations missing the count and difficulties of phrasing questions in a neutral manner.

Read the complete story here.

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