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The Way I See It: Why Take Part in the Census?

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Larry Floersch

April 1 was “Census Day,” the benchmark day for determining who was living in your household in the year 2020. But the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly overshadowed the census process this April. 

As I’m sure you know, the information collected by the census is used to determine Vermont’s representation in Congress and the way federal money is allocated back to the state. Both are based on population, and the 2020 census will determine the current population of Vermont. That number will be used to determine our representation and our piece of the federal pie until the next census in 2030. 

But there is another reason to complete the questionnaire, which is unrelated to federal money or representation, but that I think is equally important for us all as a society.

I will fess up to the fact that I was trained as a historian, and of late I have been fascinated with my past and my ancestry. One of the things I have relied on in doing my research has been the U.S. censuses going back to the late 1880s (the 2020 census will be the 24th census since the founding of the nation). 

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But for those censuses, I might never have known that my mother’s grandmother, who emigrated from Sweden when she was 18, worked as one of several live-in servants in the household of a very wealthy family in Chicago or that 10 years later she and her husband were working a rented farm in Indiana and providing for three children. I might never have learned that my father’s great grandfather and his brother were cigar makers in Chicago after they emigrated from Germany, and that when he emigrated, my great-great-grandfather brought his mother-in-law with him. And I might never have known the year in which the family of my mother’s father emigrated from Pomerania. 

Those revelations were waiting to be discovered in the censuses. And although the census questionnaire is different every ten years—the questions change to reflect the interests of the country at the time of the census—the most important information often remains the same: names, ages, and relationships of the people living in a home at a specific address on a specific date.

Much of the information I have found in the censuses probably was available to me directly when I was younger. I could have simply asked my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents about their lives—where did they come from and how did they end up where they were—and recorded that information in a notebook. But I am just like everyone else, and for various reasons, I didn’t ask, or if I did, I don’t remember. I also know from experience that even the histories that are passed down verbally only last a generation or two, if that. The details fade in our memories. 

And now it is too late—there is no one left to ask. My parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are gone, and the few aunts and uncles I have left are old and cannot remember details from their childhoods.

So I can understand if you really don’t get excited about how many representatives Vermont has or how federal money is allocated to the state. But consider your descendants. It is one of the easiest ways to let them know that YOU and your family were here, in this place, in the year 2020. And that information can speak across generations, just waiting for a curious great-great-great grandchild to discover it.