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Census Pop Culture Through the Decades

Mon Mar 19 2012
Michael Snow
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In 2010, Betty White’s Saturday Night Live debut included a sketch where she played a census respondent to Tina Fey’s enumerator. This was not the first time the once-in-a-decade count has made its way into pop culture.  As we continue our countdown to the release of 1940 Census records, we take a look at a notable 1940 parody of the census, a deeper look at how the 1940 Census questions were developed, as well as some other famous occurrences of the census in pop culture.

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While Saturday Night Live is popular with today’s audiences, in 1940, laughs came from “The Three Stooges.” In October 1940, movie theaters treated audiences to Census Taker Moe from the Three Stooges asking households, “Are you married or are you happy?” in a film called No Census, No Feeling.

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While the preceding examples were a good-natured ribbing of the Census Bureau, they also provide a window into the role the decennial census plays in society.

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Prior to the 1940 Census, during the 1930s, demand exploded for census data to measure the effects of the Great Depression and to aid federal agencies.  The Census Bureau consulted experts in other federal departments, social scientists and business leaders.  More than 1,000 individuals were asked what questions should be added or changed for the 1940 Census.

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Various industry groups, scholars, and community organizations proposed thousands of new questions to the Census Bureau’s technical advisory committee. Some of the rejected questions included:

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If unmarried, are you a virgin?

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Are you a blonde or brunette?

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Do you own a Bible?

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Ultimately, more than 5,900 questions were rejected by the advisory committee, the Census Bureau, and the forerunner of the Office of Management and Budget.  One issue with suggested new questions was that the “population schedules” where census takers wrote down respondents’ information were already overcrowded.  Adding questions would require the removal of others.

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In addition, by the 1930s, members of the public were increasingly reluctant to answer so many questions on surveys despite the desire by many groups to gain these statistics.  A cartoon published before the 1920 Census illustrates the point.

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The Census Bureau and its advisers developed a solution to respondent reluctance and the overcrowding of the form. They fundamentally altered the way U.S. censuses were conducted by adding a sample of the population.  A set of supplementary questions would be asked of only a subset of the population (roughly 5 percent of the population).  Later the population schedules that included the subset of questions became known as the long form, which was replaced by the American Community Survey (ACS). Every year, the ACS surveys a small percentage of addresses to produce timely statistics about our nation’s social, economic and housing characteristics.

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Public outreach was also heightened for the 1940 Census. The Census Bureau’s public relations department distributed thousands of posters, created radio plays, ran newsreels, and spoke with journalists.  A 1940 Life magazine article worked with the Census Bureau’s public relations staff to explain how the answers from the census questions would help businesses, schools, and governments plan for future demand.

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From the Three Stooges and Life magazine to Saturday Night Live, the once-a-decade census always finds a way into our national dialogue. As it has since 1790, its questions reach directly into every household.  The census, as historian Margo Anderson notes, serves as one of very few truly universal events for Americans.

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In addition to the other pop culture examples mentioned above, it is no wonder then that recent decades have also seen a Christopher Walken Saturday Night Live skit on the census in 2000 and Colbert Report and Daily Show features in 2010. The next census will be in 2020. If history is any guide, it will generate its own pop culture references.

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How do you think pop culture will depict the 2020 Census? What is your favorite example of the census in pop culture?  Join us on Wednesday, March 21 at 1 p.m. for a live tweet chat (using #1940Census) with Michael Snow of our history staff for a discussion on all things 1940 Census.

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