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Review of “Democracy’s Data: The Hidden Stories in the US Census and How to Read Them” by Dan Bouk

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The U.S. Census has always seemed a bit like the Bible to me: an honorable effort to relay powerfully influential information, but destined never to be 100% accurate. Like the Bible, the census is vulnerable to the inadequacies of language and to human compulsion to put its own stamp on events.

In Dan Bouk’s new book, “The Data of Democracy“, any notion of the U.S. Census as flawless accounting evaporates in a few pages and remains to the end. There, the author writes that he burst out laughing at the “absurd precision” of the announcement by the Census Bureau of the results of its 2020 population count: 331,449,281.

Yet none of this means that Bouk lacks respect for the work of the Census Bureau. On the contrary, the historian (he also has a degree in computational mathematics) writes with a genuine, even geeky, affection for his subject. “I believe in the census, as I believe in democracy — in part because in the United States, the census and democracy are intimately linked,” Bouk writes. “As long as the people control their own count, then the quest to count every person is one of the purest expressions of democratic values.”

The content of the book supports its subtitle, “Hidden Stories in the US Census and How to Read Them”. These stories shine a light on a part of government that many of us rarely think about. They introduce readers to the designers of the census, the enumerators (who go door to door to do the count) and the everyday Americans whose lives are recorded in the data.

The main purpose of the census is to count the population for the distribution of seats in Congress. But as we see, the process has long been vulnerable to those who would divert the inquiry to achieve goals rooted in racism, ignorance or lust for power. Bouk explores them in the spirit of wanting to improve a beloved institution.

The first U.S. census was taken in 1790. In accordance with the Constitution, the national count has been taken every 10 years since then; 2020 was the most recent. General results are released shortly after the counts, but full reports including individual names and other detailed information are not released until 72 years later. When Bouk was doing his research, 1940 was the most recent decennial census for which complete data was available. (Full data for 1950 was released in April 2022.)

Much of its narrative is therefore set in 1940, when the country was still reeling from the Great Depression and about to be swept away by World War II, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt was busy be elected for a third term. Strictly speaking, the census could have worked independently of these factors, but counting the population was never a simple mathematical problem. As Bouk points out throughout the book, there are consequences for who is counted and uncounted, and how the counted are named and categorized. A meeting of a group Bouk calls “question men” provides a compelling illustration of the vigorous debates that influenced the questions included in the 1940 census form. At that time, printed forms measured 23 3/4 inches over 12 1/5 inches and had room for 32 columns, for recording answers to 32 questions. As Bouk puts it, “Asking a new question meant adding a new column, which meant another question, another column, had to go.”

The Question Men were heads of government agencies and captains of industry who met in March 1939 to debate what those questions should be. There were advocates for almost every fact of American life one could think of enumerating: disabilities, religious affiliations, occupations, and housing details. Demographer Frank W. Notestein, director of Princeton University’s Office of Population Research, hoped the census would reveal which groups “didn’t have their fair share of offspring.” And a proposed income question fueled heated anti-government political rhetoric that at one point included labeling New Deal supporters as “fake Americans.” Sound familiar?

The issues that survived had the power to shape politics, but those that were counted also tried to flex their muscles. Bouk spends considerable time on the tension between efforts to lock people into sometimes nonsensical categories and individuals’ efforts to resist incorrect labeling.

There are longstanding indications that the census undercounts black people, faulty data that at one point was used to advance a false narrative that they were unable to prosper in post-America. -civil war. Bouk also includes an anecdote involving a Mexican American family counted as racially “Mexican”, only to be racially changed to “white” when the form arrived at the Census Bureau. The opacity around the word “partner” allowed for various interpretations, depending on who was doing the count, and the enumerator – not the person whose life was described on the sheet – was usually the one calling.

One of the most heartbreaking examples of census work being misused is when the federal government broke its promise never to use census data against its citizens. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, that’s exactly what he did – extract files to find out where to find those who were Japanese (and Japanese American) to kick them out of their homes and jobs and send them to camps of internment.

Solid storytelling chops and a friendly tone help Bouk win over readers who might wonder how interesting a census book can be. Surprise – it can be! In the hands of someone who understands it, the census is a mirror of the country’s ideals, values, flaws and attributes.

Bouk discovers the great paradox of the ten-year count: that it is an incredibly large and messy task, but also an impressive achievement. As he says, “Each census is a remarkable achievement, a glorious dream, and earnest work.” He wants us to believe that it is possible to do a better census and worry about whether it is improving. “Democracy’s Data” makes the case.

Karen Sandstrom is a freelance writer in Cleveland.

The Hidden Stories in the US Census and How to Read Them