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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 22, 2010

Help your town stay afloat and weather the storm, file your census form

Illustration by Forest Byrd

The first census in the United States, required by its Constitution, was taken in 1790. Representative democracy was then a new idea.

“If you’re using people as a basis of government, you have to know how many there are,” says David Hendricks, historian for the United States Census Bureau, in a wonderfully informative website maintained by the bureau.

The law required that every household be visited, and six inquiries were made — the name of the head of the household and the number of people who were free white males 16 or older, free white males under 16, free white females, all other free persons, or slaves.

Marshals, under the direction of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, took the census in the original 13 states as well as the districts of Kentucky, Maine, and Vermont, and the Southwest Territory, now Tennessee.

The total: 3.9 million Americans. Both Jefferson and President George Washington were skeptical; they had expected more.

Every 10 years, as the Civil War raged, as the Great Depression set in, the citizens of our country were counted as the Constitution requires. As the population grew, so did the questions.

In the second half of the 19th Century, as immigrants flocked to America, the population increased by 35 percent in each decade. The census was still being taken with checkmarks on paper in 1880.

A crisis was brewing since, in 1887, the hand tallying from the 1880 census was still not complete. The superintendent of the census bureau held a contest to find a speedier method.

Herman Hollerith won. He is described as a quiet MIT instructor by the Smithsonian’s Paul Ceruzzi on the bureau’s website. Hollerith developed a tabulating system using punch cards, with holes punched at various places to mark characteristics like age, sex, color, or marital status. Hollerith leased the bureau 56 electronic tabulating machines, which used metal pins to complete circuits through the punched holes. In 1911, he sold the shares in his company for over a million dollars to Thomas John Watson, who in 1924 renamed the company International Business Machines, IBM.

The evolution of the modern computer can be read through the decades of census development, right through to current postings on the Internet. Film clips on the census bureau’s website show the publicity for each decade, from stirring patriotic music in 1940 with a crisp voice announcing, “You cannot know your country unless your country knows you” to a gritty 2000 clip showing overcrowded schools and urging, “Stand up and be counted.”

Technology and publicity aside, though, the function of this year’s census remains the same as that of the first census in 1790. As historian Hendricks said, “If you’re using people as a basis of government, you have to know how many there are.”

The data is still used for the distribution of congressional seats to the states, as mandated by the Constitution. In New York State, that number has been steadily declining as the population decreases. The Empire State had 39 representatives in 1970, thirty-four in 1980, thirty-one in 1990, and twenty-nine in 2000.

Equally as important, the federal government allocates over $400 billion based on census data — that’s over a thousand dollars for each person annually. The money is used for neighborhood improvements, public health, education, and transportation. Census data is also used for planning decisions, such as where to provide services for the elderly, where to build new roads and schools, or where to locate job training centers.

This year’s questionnaire is one of the shortest in two centuries — just 10 questions. It asks for name, gender, age, and race of each member of a household, and whether the home is rented or owned. It is simple and non-invasive. The census bureau, by law, cannot share responses with anyone.

So far, nationwide, about 70 percent of the mailed-out forms have been mailed back. Albany County is a bit ahead of the curve at 73 percent. In 2000, the census bureau paid the Young and Rubican Company $167 million for a national ad campaign to encourage residents to mail back their census forms, bringing the mail-back rate back up to about 67 percent that year.

Enumerators will be sent to households that have not completed the forms. The household visits begin in May and run through July. Final counts are to be delivered to the president on the last day of 2010.

If the concept of being counted for representation or to help your community get federal funds isn’t enough to inspire you to fill out your form, Albany County’s comptroller, Michael Conners, has come up with some numbers that may move you.

The towns and villages we cover count on sales-tax funds from the county for the bulk of their revenues; most of the rest is raised through local property taxes. Albany County collects an 8-percent sales tax; 4 percent of that revenue goes to the state, and the other 4 percent is split 60/40 between the county and the 19 towns, villages, and cities within the county.

Recently, the chairman of the county legislature floated an idea to cut those funds — an outcry resulted. Guilderland’s supervisor, Kenneth Runion, said that, if the county funds were eliminated, the town taxes in Guilderland would increase 12-fold — from 25 cents to $3 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. The chairman backed off the plan, but it illustrates how vital those funds are to running our towns and villages.

The county funds are distributed according to population, which is measured by the census. According to Conners’s data, Guilderland’s population in 2000 was 34,050; based on a 2008 estimate, it looks like Guilderland in 2010 will get 11.67 percent of the county funds, up from 11.56 percent. Similarly, it looks like the shares for New Scotland and Knox will go up slightly while the shares for Rensselaerville and Westerlo will go down; and the share for Berne will remain the same.

Each person counted in the 2010 census, stresses Conners, means $275 in sales tax revenue per year; in a decade, until the next census, that amounts to $2,750 for each person. That’s money you won’t have to make up in property taxes to fill the gap.

So, isn’t that worth 10 minutes of your time?

Fill out your census form if you haven’t already. Not only will it form a history that future generations can look back on — “It’s a way to understand who we are as a nation,” historian Hendricks said — but, going forward, it will bring funds in your community.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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