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Five Questions With Kathy Aiken, Dean, College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences

Can you give us a quick historical overview of the census?
We have had a census since 1790, actually even before the Constitution was completely ratified. We have it because the Constitution provides for the distribution of the Electoral College votes and members in the House of Representatives based on population. So we had to have population information in order to decide how many seats in the House of Representatives in the United States Congress each state would have, and how many electoral votes they would have. That was the original purpose, so it very much is tied to the history of American democracy.

But, the Census has changed in terms of the questions it asks and the information it gathers?
It has changed a lot over time in a couple of ways. I want to preface that by saying it’s a very remarkable experience because it’s so public. We have a lot of other ways we gather data in this country, but nothing that is quite as public as the census because it is so participatory. In a lot of ways it is representative of who we are and how we think of ourselves. It really is a time when we look forward, but it also is a time when we look back. When you think about the history of the census, like in 1890 when Frederick Jackson Turner said the frontier is over because he looked at the census figures – so it’s an opportunity for us to look at where we were and also where we’re going.

Historians do a lot of work about the census because of who asked the questions. So, when the census was done in person, which is was for most of it’s history, there was a question: If white men asked black women questions in the census, would they be willing to tell the true story? If we asked people, whose first language wasn’t English, questions, would they really understand what we asked? We also have a lot of evidence that sometimes the census-taker answered the questions the way he, in most cases, thought the answer ought to be, as opposed to what the person actually told him. So, the whole study of the census in involved in all kinds of social and cultural issues about Americans and their views of themselves, or their views of how they think ought to be.

Now, since we do it primarily by mail, it allows for a whole different kind of anonymity than existed before. But it does require that people take a positive action, and that’s much more complicated, I think, than when the person comes to your door and forces you to answer the question: you have to take responsibility for answering the census questions, and you need to do that because the answers have a big impact, not just on politics, but also on social policy.

This year, the census form was 10 questions. Where does all the other information come from?
Well, sometimes we do it through surveys, but now we have electronic means that we can use to garner the information we used to gather by hand by asking people questions. We also have a whole lot of other bureaucratic entities – unemployment, Social Security, other aspects of the government – that keep track of things like that, and we have the federal income tax that we didn’t use to have that keeps track of income, so we have all kinds of other parts of the government that keeps track of different pieces of information that we don’t have to ask in the census. Basically, all we’re doing in this census is asking some questions about race and ethnicity and background, and counting folks.

How does the census impact the University?
The census impacts the University, I think, because we are a part of the wider community. It impacts us in terms of the election situation in Idaho and in this area. But, it also impacts the University because all the changes in population that the census identifies often are used by people in Congress and in the federal government to make decisions about policy, in terms of programs and directions, that also has an impact on the University. If you think about the University’s interest in natural resources, agriculture, fisheries and wildlife, and all those kinds of topics, well, people in Washington, D.C., use the census as a way to help make decisions on those issues. I think the recent health care debate is a really good example. The number of people and where they are often has some relevance to what people in Washington and bureaucracies and legislatures are doing in terms of decision making. So, it’s really important to us all that the census be as accurate as it can be so that informed decisions can be made.

As a historian and social researcher, I would think you would just love the census?
Historians do love the census. They love it, not just for the numbers, but we get really excited about even the whole process of how it is we ask the questions, and who responded, and why didn’t they respond, and what do we think it really tells us, and yes, we do get very excited about that. It probably says as much about historians as it does about the census.