Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Back to the Future: a century after the 1920 census

Census taker (lower right) with American Indians, 1910

An entire century will separate the 1920 and 2020 censuses, so one would think that the issues surrounding the two surveys are as different as night and day. But that is not the case. Immigration and political power were front and center 100 years ago, just as they are today.

The Trump Administration’s decision to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census has created a national uproar and drawn federal lawsuits and appeals. Opponents argue that adding the question will discourage participation among non-citizens and even legal immigrants, causing an under-count of both of those groups. Using that faulty data, they claim, federal agencies then will apportion resources both inadequately and unevenly, hurting low-income and marginalized communities through the coming decade.

Adding questions to the census is hardly unprecedented.  Since the first census in 1790, the number and type of questions in the survey have been changed periodically. The 1920 census, for example, added several questions.

Woman census taker in Chinatown,
New York City, 1920

Like the proposed 2020 citizenship question, these were directed at immigrants: What was the respondent’s native language? What was the native language of the respondent’s parents?  When was the respondent naturalized? The questions came at a time when both parties urged greater restriction of immigration, especially from Southern and Eastern Europe, in response to the widespread post-World War I public backlash against immigrants. 

Some immigrants may have been scared off by concerns about their status. But the people who were really frightened by the prospect of that 1920 census were members of Congress.

What did these legislators fear? Just like today, it was the reapportionment of seats in the House of Representatives. Reapportionment is mandated by the Constitution to assure that representation reflects the distribution of the population. It occurs every ten years, based on census information.

In 1910, when the results of the census were made known, they revealed a total population of 92,228,496, with a rural population of 50,164,495 and an urban population of 42,064,001. Obviously, the next census would report a population greater than 100 million.

Far more significant would be the shift from rural to urban; the next census would show that – for the first time in American history – more people would reside in U.S. cities than on farms.

Alfred Stieglitz's iconic photograph of 
immigrants, The Steerage (1907)
(Permission of the Getty Trust)

Thus, following the 1920 census, the nation would face a major shift in political power. Reapportionment would dictate that less populous states would lose House seats and urban areas would gain them. That was why some rural House members publicly declared, as early as 1918, that the census had little value. Others urged that immigrants be eliminated from the count altogether.

Reapportionment brings a new political balance each decade, but it also can mark significant cultural and social change. Hence the Anti-Saloon League hustled politicians to rush through Prohibition before the House was reapportioned, for a constitutional amendment to ban liquor never would have passed if urban legislators were the majority in the House. 

The census became a metaphor, as in this compelling
1922 poem by the radical writer and activist James Rorty.

Just seven months after the enumerators – as they were called – set forth with their questionnaires, the government revealed the first results of the new census. Ten states would lose rural seats (Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, Vermont and Virginia) while ten states would gain urban seats (New York, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Texas).  

The prospect of such a drastic political realignment led the House Census Committee to violate its constitutional duty by repeatedly postponing and voting down reapportionment after the final census report. It became a perennial dance.

In their first attempt to avoid such drastic reapportionment, Congressional legislators proposed a measure that would have enlarged the House to 500 seats from 435 seats. It was voted down.

In 1922, President Harding said he’d had enough and insisted that reapportionment occur by March 1923. That vote was deferred. And so it went.

President Warren G. Harding

In 1924, the census committee announced that it would drop reapportionment because “adoption of the 1920 census would seriously affect agriculture and farming sections.”

In 1926, the House again rejected apportionment, claiming that it was not mandatory. Despite public anger and editorial outrage, the House again refused to move on reapportionment in 1928.

Finally, after the results of the 1930 census were announced, the House acted. But the damage had been done.   

If Congress had performed its duty, the Immigration Act of 1924 would not have been enacted. That xenophobic law set severe quotas for Eastern European immigrants and completely excluded most Asians, Indians, and Arabs. And Prohibition likely would have been repealed far earlier than 1933, due to overwhelming opposition among urban residents. 

This 1911 book was one in a series about
boys' adventures in various professions. 

Yesterday the Supreme Court heard arguments about the Trump Administration’s move to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. The decision will dramatically affect reapportionment.

However the Court rules, it is remarkable to behold how closely the issues surrounding the 2020 census echo the past. Again we face a major shift in political power – 100 years ago it was toward the cities; in 2020, if the question is included, it may be away from the cities.

Just as significantly, the decision has the potential to stave off the future. When Congress refused to act on the 1920 census for ten years, it put off major changes in American life related to mass culture and the growing presence of minorities. In 2020, if the question is included and influence tilts back toward rural states, we too may be merely postponing a social transformation.


*Thanks to Mark Olmsted for the title.

Left-click on images to enlarge them.

1 comment:

  1. I gave you this title? Well it's a small favor for the blog post I needed to read for the very valuable historical perspective. This decade-long delay really serves as kind of foreshadowing to the theft of Merrick Garland's Supreme Court seat, the effects of which will also linger far into the future. Arguably it also had something to do with the Depression, not to mention the shutting off of the U.S. from desperate European Jewry.

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