Did you get your envelope this week? I admit that opening it gave me a little thrill. We all love the census and we feel like it’s ours, even though genealogy was the last thing census takers have ever had in mind. What did they have in mind?
There are lots of things that motivate humans, but from where I sit the big two are sex and money. Yes, there is idealism and ideology and religion and altruism, but if I had to guess I ‘d go with sex and money. There’s not much sex involved in the census story, except for Turkey and we’ll get back to that later. So, it’s all about money and its corollary, power.
There are records of a census taken in Babylonia 6000 years ago counting people, livestock and commodities, such as honey and wool. A census was taken in the Persian Empire about 500 B.C. to establish a basis for land ownership and taxation.
According to the New World Encyclopedia censuses were conducted in the Mauryan Empire (c. 350-283 B.C.E.), “which prescribed the collection of population statistics as a measure of state policy for the purpose of taxation. It contains a detailed description of methods of conducting population, economic and agricultural censuses.”
Perhaps the most famous census was taken by the Roman Empire. A man and his pregnant wife traveled to Bethlehem to be counted and finding no rooms available, settled down in stable where she gave birth to a son. I doubt many censuses have had as much impact on the world, but again, this was a census taken to establish guidelines for taxation.
The Chinese census in the year 2 A.D. is the first census with actual data preserved into modern times.
In the western World there is the famous Domesday Book of 1086. Taken at the direction of William the Conqueror it established property valuation for the purposes of taxation. It was the final word, without appeal on the value of property for taxation purposes, and has come to be appropriately called the Doomsday Book.
And on it goes. Most modern nations now take periodic censuses with varied purposes. The U.S. has taken a census every 10 years since 1790. Canada also takes a census every 10 years with a mini-census at the mid-decade mark. The U.S. census figures determine how many representatives each state will have in the House of Representatives. My home state of Connecticut lost one representative after the 2000 census, accompanied by much political upheaval as districts were redrawn and elections held. All kinds of federal monies that flow to the states are determined by population figures.
So census taking through the years has largely been about money and power. Is it a coincidence that your census form is due on the same day as your tax form? I think not.
And what of Turkey? Turkey has taken a census regularly since the birth of the Republic in 1927. They hope to accomplish an accurate count by having everyone stay home from dawn to dusk while hundreds of thousands of enumerators and police officers make the rounds. What do they do with this full day of enforced captivity? Okay, I don’t really know, but people being people I’m betting there is an up-tick in the birth rate nine moths later. So there you have it, Sex and the Census. Sounds like a good name for a television show, don’t you think?