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Census questions reflect history
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Past Census questions
  • Census questionnaires asked some of the same questions each year, but forms also gave a hint to what was going on in the world such as the Great Depression in the 1930s and advancement of automobiles in the 1950s. This is a sampling of past questions asked on the short and long forms.
  • The number of free White males aged: under 16 years, of 16 years and upward (1790)
  • Number of all other free persons (1800)
  • Is the person “deaf, dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper, or convict?” (1850)
  • Is the person a male citizen of the United States of 21 years or upwards whose right to vote is denied or abridged on grounds other than “rebellion or other crime?” (1870)
  • Is the person defective of mind, sight, hearing, or speech? Is the person crippled, maimed, or deformed? If yes, what was the name of his defect? (1890)
  • How many months did the person attend school in the past year? (1900)
  • Can the person read? (1900)
  • Is the person a survivor of the Union or Confederate Army or Navy? (1910)
  • Does this person live on a farm NOW? (1930)
  • Did this person live on a farm A YEAR AGO? (1930)
  • Record line number for unemployed (1930)
  • Was the person at work for pay or profit in private or nonemergency government work during the week of March 24-30? (1940)
  • Number of weeks worked in 1939 (or equivalent of full time weeks) (1940)
  • Amount of money, wages, or salary received (including commissions) (1940)
  • Is this house on a farm (or ranch)? (1950)
  • If no, is this house on a place of three or more acres? (1950)
  • How did this person get to work last week? Railroad, Subway or elevated train, Bus or streetcar, Taxicab, Private auto or carpool, Walk only, Worked at home, Other. (1960)
  • If the person is a girl or a woman, how many babies has she ever had, not counting stillbirths? (1970)
  • Is this person of Spanish/Hispanic origin or descent? (1980)
  • Does this person have a physical, mental, or other health condition which has lasted for 6 or more months and which ... limits the kind or amount of work this person can do at a job? 2. Prevents this person from working at a job? 3. Limits or prevents this person from using public transportation? (1980)
  • Because of a health condition that has lasted for 6 or more months, does this person have any difficulty: Going outside the home alone, for example, to shop or visit a doctor’s office? Taking care of his or her own personal needs, such as bathing, dressing, or getting around inside the home? (1990)
  • Does this person have any of his/her own grandchildren under the age of 18 living in this house or apartment? (2000)

Census officials say this year’s survey is one of the shortest in history.

And that’s saying a lot; the census is mandated by the Constitution and thus has been around for 220 years.

“(This year), it is all about the number 10. Ten questions that will take 10 minutes or less that will impact the quality of life in your community for the next 10 years,” said Manuel Landivar, assistant regional census manager in the Atlanta area.

It asks simple questions about how many people are in the household, what their names are and their sex and race.

In previous years, the short form had as many as 15 questions, and the long form, which was sent to about 15 percent of the houses in the country, had 67 questions.

In 2000, Census Bureau officials stopped using the long form and began collecting socioeconomic information through the American Community Survey. About 250,000 people are surveyed that way each month, Landivar said.

“This way we can have actualized data throughout the decade,” Landivar said.

That change is one of a few big changes over the years for the census, according to the Census Bureau Web site,

When the census began in 1790, questions were basic. How many males in the household are younger than 16 and how many older than 16? White females, other free people and slaves also were counted. Through the 1800s, age breakdowns got more specific.

World events and social changes, such as the abolition of slavery and the Great Depression, were evidenced in the questions.

In 1850, there were two questionnaires — one for free people, one for slaves. By 1870, after the Emancipation Proclamation, forms no longer asked about slaves.

Questions about race got more specific through the years. What began as black, white or mulatto now includes a variety of Asian and Hispanic descents and allows people to mark more than one box.

Toward the beginning of the Great Depression, the 1930 census asked, “Does this person live on a farm NOW?” and “Did this person live on a farm A YEAR AGO?” Later in 1940, it included questions about much people worked, how much they made and whether or not they had a Social Security number. The Social Security Act was enacted in 1935 to provide benefits for the elderly, among others.

The 1940 census also was the first to include a separate questionnaire on the condition of the nation’s housing.

“In order to gauge the effect of the Great Depression on the nation’s housing stock, a census of occupied dwellings was coupled with the usual demographic questions,” according to the census Web site.

Unlike the general population questionnaire, this census form asked questions about the characteristics of housing, such as what material the home was constructed from and whether it needed major repairs. It also asked about running water, toilet facilities, lighting, refrigeration, heating and fuel.

By 1960, the census asked about how people got to work. Answers for that category increased through the years with the addition of transportation modes like motorcycles, trucks, vans and even ferryboats. Now, with the American Community Survey, there no longer is a decennial long census form that asks detailed questions about how we live.

The short form collects information needed to determine whether states and local governments need more representation in legislative bodies or whether they need to redraw their boundaries to more equally represent each district in legislative bodies.

Census officials expect the new 10-question form will garner a better response than previous decennial surveys. Landivar said he expects the response rate to improve in the metro-Atlanta area by at least 2 to 3 percent.

Staff writer Ashley Fielding contributed to this report.

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