New insight into the accuracy of census data.

+22 votes
259 views
My grandmother worked as a census taker during the 2000 census and I just finished working for the 2020 census. It gives me a whole new level of insight as to the accuracy of census data.

Of course looking through census records for my own genealogical efforts has had me come across various name spellings, age discrepancies and even gender discrepancies. After working as a census taker I understand completely why and how that happens.

I was told to record exactly what I was told from whoever was able to give me inofrmation. Sometimes it was the head of house and they knew everything asked. Other times it was their 8 year old who was translating the answers to me since I didn't speak their language. When people refused to respond we were instructed to ask neighbors.

There were many times people didn't want to give any information at all and I had to struggle just to get a count of how many people lived there. When I did get just a number I was told to write down person a, person b, etc...

Of course it is a different era now than it was in say 1920 so maybe people were more willing to provide the information and actually knew the ages of their own children (you'd be surprised how many didn't). I certainly have more understanding as to why I come across so many discrepancies now.
in The Tree House by Leilani Atkins G2G6 (9.9k points)
Thank you Leilani, for confirming what I've long suspected as the reason for the variations in info. Sometimes off so much, that I suspected it must have been a neighbor.  

One record had all the children in the family off a bit, except the young preteen boy was correct and the oldest boy was listed as a girl with a feminine version of his name. I chuckled imagining a tiff between those two earlier in the day, and the younger son was home alone and unhappy about it when the census worker arrived.
I've just documented a family where, in the 1925 New York state census, the one son has miraculously turned into a girl named Rose.  (His name was Rowland.)

At the beginning I tried my best to record everything as accurately as possible. After everything was input I would show them and have them confirm the data and spelling.

Towards the end pretty much everyone was a multiple refusal so then you are just trying to get any information at all before they close the door on you. We were told to put nicknames in the name fields without specific guidelines.

Some used person a, some john or jane doe, others mom or brother. It was all over the place and sometimes I got bored so I used names like bashful, grumpy or sleepy based on how they answered the door. I can only imagine what 2020 is going to look like since it was a common thing among my fellow enumerators.

My brother had similar experiences when he was a census taker in the 1980's in Lancaster County, PA. He said some of the farm people would not give detailed answers and would only state how many lived in the household!
Censuses are problematic in isolation but in groups they are the best tool to put families together. Even the pre-1860 ones with just age groupings can help eliminate a lot of dead ends.
There has always been a distrust of the government, and the census.  There are people who don't answer questions by "government agents", ever.

As we look at census data, we see the complete mis-information listed sometimes.  We can only hope that the census agent did his/her best to document the data.  At least your entries are so wild that nobody will ever accept them as truthful 72 years from now.  We hope they will have other resources to do their research with.  They will probably be able to see Facebook connections, cell-phone ownership records, etc. that lead to monthly residence address books.  All that data is being recorded now...

4 Answers

+4 votes
Amongst people couldn't read, write and could barely compute (my 19th C ancestors), I  doubt age or spelling of name was accurate. Order of birth probably better.

If one person was asked about a multi occupied house, some of the answers would have been wild guesses. I know of enumerator in the East End of London in the 1881 census resorted to initials, probably wild guesses as to place of birth. He might have got the occupation right.

 A couple of years ago we were enumerated for the French census. I can read French fairly well but I'm not that good at speaking or writing. I felt really sorry for the enumerator. Our British answers didn't fit the  French boxes ; for example, before retirement I taught in a middle school 8-13.This caused real difficulties  she didn't know what to write. Was I an institutrice (primary) or a professeur (secondary)?  Then we got onto my husbands RAF career; L' armée de l'air brittanique but after that it went downhill.  Poor lady she was with us for 'hours'.

(I'd love to read the printed 'results' but won't be around next century)
by Helen Ford G2G6 Pilot (344k points)
There was one particularly upset women who I visited multiple times to get information with multiple refusals. On my 4th visit I said if I could only get the number of people these visits could end. She said "screw you 3 people live here now get lost and go to hell."

The census told us to give nicknames when people refused to give information, they also told us to put down what was told to us so for the 3 peoples nicknames I put, Screw You, Get Lost, and Goto Hell. That was the information I was given after all, I can only imagine what people might think 72 years from now.
I'm sorry you had to go through that Leilani; it's so uncivil.
Yeah thanks. Most people weren't like that fortunately, most people were just annoyed but didn't slam the door. I had 2 door slams, 1 gun pointed at me and 1 gun shot in my general direction but not at me (he was shooting a gofer). Lots of people either looking through the peep hole or window but never actually opening the door.

For every negative interaction I had two people offer me to come in and sit down and offer me water, so while the jerks are memorable they aren't the majority.
So, first, thank you for your effots as a census taker.

But, you are painfully aware of how the census data can be inaccurate due to bad information, and yet you purposefully created bad information by using the names of the seven dwarves and the impolite things that someone shouted at you during a pandemic?

Well yes, no matter what there would have been bad data simply because I was not given any. I tried my best to enter accurate data whenever I was given it. 

In order to "close" a case we need a population count. The app they created had a place where you could enter that the unit was occupied and put just a number for how many people lived there, however that would not "close" the case so even inputting that info would still send people back to get a full interview.

In order to "close" the case we had to put a name or nickname in the name field. We were told in training if we were given info to use that but if not to make it up. Inputting any name provided it was more than 3 characters was what closed the case. The last month we were told to do whatever we could to close the case.

It was only in the last month that I really had to resort to nicknames but even if I had only put down person a it still would have been bad data. The best thing would have been for the system to just accept the number entered and not require any names then this could have been avoided.

It was just one of many problems the software had. I see what you are saying Jonathan but what was I supposed to do?

+4 votes
Can I ask what might be a stupid question? I live in Canada, our census is mostly done online, we receive a letter with information on how to log in to the census site. If you want a paper copy you can ask for one to be mailed.

There may be places where a census taker goes to people's residences but I haven't seen that done in 40+ years. Before the online census I think it was all done by mail.

Is your census all done door to door?
by M Ross G2G6 Pilot (190k points)
It's done in stages at this point--I for example answered my census (got a form in the mail, filled it out online), so I won't see someone coming around to follow up, but if my address wasn't marked as responding, they'd have people follow up in person.
Thanks for your reply, I had no idea of how the U.S. census is conducted. Now I need to find out how many people in Canada are contacted by 'real people'.
In my state of California about 60% of people responded themselves either by filling it out online, with a paper form through the mail or over the phone. I and my fellow enumerators were responsible for the other 40%. Apparently Georgia had a 30% self report rate so it varied by area.

This was the first year census takers did it electronically through a smart phone app rather than a physical paper form and that app was very problematic I am anticipating issues because of that alone.
+4 votes
Yeah, I've no doubt that some of my ancestors in the census, the data was filled out by a neighbor going "And the oldest boy Jimmy, he's the same age as our Veronica, but the baby, everyone calls him [name that has no bearing on reality], he was born the year of the big snow storm, now was that 07?  or 09? "  the 1860 census, they got everyone's name and age right EXCEPT their last name, so instead of Marsh, they're all listed as Myers.  

What I really want to see happen is someone transcribe the census data with the locations, particularly for this reason--I have a couple of family members where the system can't find them, which probably means they're spelled wrong. But most of them lived around their family members in previous years, so if I could look at the location data longitudinally, it would probably be a lot easier to find them.
by Celia Marsh G2G5 (5.5k points)
+4 votes
And just think, back in the olden days, some of those poor women had 15 or 16 children and we expected them to remember the names and ages.  I really doubt it.  I only have 2 and I have to stop and think sometimes.  And the grandkids, wow, I have to pick one I can remember and figure the rest of the ages from that one.  Too many of them.  Poor women with so many, it's no wonder they have trouble with the names and ages.
by Paula Franklin G2G6 Mach 4 (46.6k points)
I had several people who when it came to their kids birthday they had to ask the kid.
When my mother was angry at me, she would start yelling the names of the dog, the cat, my brother, my sister, then eventually me.  Who is to remember all that info with 15 or 16 of those brats running around.

And talking about 15 or 16, I always knew it was at least 8-10, not until doing research here in Wiki did I see it was double that...  And I'm surprized a good majority lived, I always was led to believe the infant mortality rate was much higher than I'm seeing in my research.
When we got in trouble it was full first and second names and we knew we better straighten up in a hurry when we heard them.  I found that I did the same with my children.

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