We begin in Section 2–A with a general historical overview of the census in the post–World War II era to set the necessary context.1 We then turn in subsequent sections to examination of trends in census quality (2–B) and census costs (2–C). We close in Section 2–D with an assessment of how we think those two drivers should affect 2020 census planning in general.


1940 and 1950: Sampling and R&D

The basic methodology of the 1940 and 1950 censuses was not dissimilar to that used in previous censuses: temporary Census Bureau employees (enumerators) went door to door, writing down answers provided by household respondents on large sheets of paper, or “schedules.”2 Each schedule had one line per person for 30–40 people on the front and one line per housing unit on the back for the people listed on the front.3 The data were keypunched and tabulated by clerks using technology invented by Herman Hollerith for the 1890 census. Yet underlying the similarities were important innovations that paved the way for today’s census.

The 1940 census was the first census to use newly developed probability sampling methods to ask a subset of the population some of the census content (6 of 60-odd questions); it was also the first census not only to include formal evaluations of the quality of the enumeration and of specific content items, but also to be followed by a program of pretests and experiments leading up to the next census (see Chapter 3 for details). This R&D program resulted in improvements to the wording of questions, enumerator instructions, and other features of the 1950 census.

The 1950 census included at least four important innovations. First, sampling was used much more extensively for collecting the census content: about two-fifths of the 60-odd questions were asked of samples of the population, which presumably contributed to the reduction in real dollar per housing unit costs in 1950 compared with 1940.4 Second, the first mainframe computer (UNIVAC I) for use outside academic and defense research


Our synopsis of census-taking in 1940 through 2010 is based principally on Jenkins (2000) [1940 census]; Goldfield and Pemberton (2000a,b) [1950, 1960 censuses]; National Research Council (1985:Chap. 3, 5) [1970, 1980 censuses]; National Research Council (1995) [1990 census]; National Research Council (2004a) [1990, 2000 censuses]; National Research Council (2004b) [planning for the 2010 census].


Enumerators were first hired in place of U.S. marshals for the 1880 census.


The content of the census questionnaire expanded greatly from a few items in the first censuses to dozens of items in censuses of the late 19th century; in 1940, a census of housing was added to the census of population.


The 1940 census was an outlier in the first half of the 20th century with regard to costs. It cost substantially more per housing unit than the 1930 census, so that the 1950 census costs reverted to the historical norm (see Section 2–C.1).

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