1940 Census-mania!

The frenzy surrounding the release of 1940’s census data hit the nation like a bolt of lighting last week. Well, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but Archives.com, the website housing the newly-released data, was unable to cope with the initial flood of people searching their databases. As several news outlets reported, the site nearly froze as tens of millions of web surfers flocked to Archives.com to check out the information. The site got nearly 37 million hits just after the information was released on Monday.

For those unfamiliar with U.S. Census Bureau protocol, individual data regarding census takers is kept anonymous for 72 years. So, while the information gathered in the 2010 census has already been used for population records, the names and answers will be locked until 2082. Last week’s release of the 1940 research was the first digital release of census information.

As a former census taker, I was very interested in the release and thrilled at how accessible the information would be. When I checked the website, the first thing I noticed was the types of questions people were asked back in 1940.

“Questions asked in the 1940 census include name, age, relationship to the head of household, birthplace, and education, residence in 1935, employment status, and wages. Also about 5% of people were asked an additional set of questions, including parents’ birthplace, veteran status, occupation, and more.”

This was far more information than what was asked in 2010. I had difficultly getting people to tell me their name and residence. Asking people about their wages and education would have been unthinkable. I had my share of doors slammed in my face and people being rude to me (of course my job was basically to pester people who didn’t mail in their info the first time). Where people just as cynical and unfriendly back in 1940? If so, these enumerators probably had an even tougher time than I.

Anybody who knows me will attest that I abhor any invasion of privacy. I hate people asking me personal questions and I especially distrust giving away personal information. Simply put, I’m a private person. But I’ve never felt threatened by the census or American Community Survey. In fact I have always been fascinated by the research from an anthropological point of view, which led me to accept a census job two years ago.

With that said, one can hardly blame someone for being skeptical of the data collection. After all, it was the 1940 census that allegedly led to the most egregious breaks in its security. Following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. went to war with Japan. The federal government subsequently began a process of interning Japanese-American in “War Relocation Camps” — essentially American concentration camps — via an executive order from FDR. The U.S. government illegally used confidential census data to help find and detain Japanese-Americans.


~ by Sean Ammerman on April 8, 2012.

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