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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History Workshop 6 - The Census: Who We Think We Arehomesitemap
Introduction -Link Before You Watch - link Lectures and Activities Classroom and Applications - Link

Workshop 6:  Lectures & Activities

Lecture Transcript One:
The Census and American Identity

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Now, some of the general results of the census—I mean, show us where the population is moving to, right?—from the Northeast to the Sun Belt; what the population is doing—these kinds of things; how sick or well they are, so it's correlated with health statistics as well. And the federal government uses census numbers to allocate over $100 billion in federal funds for community services, including education programs, housing and community development, where to put fire departments, health care services, job training, et cetera. And of course, one of the fundamental aspects of the census in the beginning was the use of this data to determine how many seats each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives. And the states also use them to determine how many seats and how to allocate seats in state legislature. So it's, you know, it gathers a body of information that is critically important for the United States government at every level.

Now, the next question we have to ask about the census is what does it really tell us. I mean, you have all these bits of information that we've gathered now. We can figure out how many people there are, where they are, but we also have to remember that the census is deeply embedded in American history. With respect to a couple of categories, we realize that the census tells us things about population growth, for example. It tells us that the U.S. is one of the fastest growing populations in the world; that in 1790, there were 3.9 million people who could be counted. Remember, the census captures those people who can be counted, and in 1790, those people who could be counted and were counted were largely on the Eastern seaboard. By 1890, we had 63 million people across the entire continent, and in 1990, we have over 245 million people.

We have economic growth. We can watch the changes in economic development in American history. In the 18th century, you're going to see lots of information in census data about rivers and canals. In the 19th century, you see rivers and canals are being replaced by railroads. In the 20th century, you're going to see the ways in which we talk about highway transportation, train and rail transportation, as well as transportation through the air, of course.

We can look at manufacturing. 18th century, we're going to see a lot of home-based manufacturing—home craft industries located in the home. Of course, in the 19th and 20th century, that moves out of the home into the broader workplace. The manufacturing base, we can see the way it moves from what we call the Snow Belt here in the Northeast down to the Sun Belt in the South and the West.

And finally, the census tells us a lot about who we are, who the people that live in this country are—who was here first, who came later, and where they came from. Thus, a major aspect of the census is to detail the heterogeneity, the racial and ethnic diversity, and the mobility of the American population. So our focus will be at looking at how census categories have shaped how Americans think about their racial and ethnic identities. The question of who we are as Americans has been really fraught with controversy since 1790. The classification of Americans into certain categories also invites comparison. For example, is one group of Americans doing better than another group of Americans? Do immigrants have higher birth rates than native-born Americans? Is Spanish being spoken more widely than English? The census provides the categories by which we make these kinds of comparisons.

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