The civil rights revolution, the war on poverty, and a variety of other federal and private initiatives of the 1960s generated an interest among social scientists in producing systematic social indicators to measure our well-being. Over the decades, the federal statistical system developed a variety of signposts about the economy: the monthly unemployment rate, quarterly estimates of growth of the Gross Domestic Product, annual estimates of personal income and earnings, and the rate of inflation that is used for many purposes including the once-a-year adjustment in Social Security payments. These measures, widely viewed as accurate and crucial, have also come to play a role in the political arena, since the rates of unemployment and inflation are used to judge whether an administration managed the national economy competently or poorly.

Starting in the late 1960s, there was a movement to devise similarly important and unambiguous social indicators that would tell us how well we were doing with regard to health, education, social mobility, racial equity, and other quality-of-life issues. The hope was to develop such measures, popularize them and then have them calculated regularly by the federal statistical agencies and their counterparts in the private sector. This movement ended by the early 1980s, but our need for information about Americans’ health, education, social mobility, and racial equality is as strong as ever.

“The enumeration of 2000 is the ideal occasion to initiate a new discussion about social indicators.”

The enumeration of 2000 is the ideal occasion to initiate a new discussion about social indicators. Data from the census will give us fresh information about families, about who is doing well and who is not, about educational differences and about which locations are prosperous and which are falling further behind the national average. It will report unique information about racial differences and about gender change, especially gender change in education, occupations, and earnings. Presumably any array of social indicators for the United States in the new millennium will use data from next year’s enumeration as the starting point.

Fortunately, our statistical system already provides information about economic trends, and about favorable social trends including a rise in educational attainment and a much longer lifespan. Does the decennial census need to ask Americans several dozen questions about their housing, their education, their employment, and their sources of income? Let me emphasize that while there is vibrant controversy about using sampling to complete the count and to adjust for net undercount, there is no controversy about using a sample in the census to obtain social and economic information. Although census results will be used to paint an important national self-portrait, the social and economic questions are mandated by Congress for the purpose of sensibly allocating federal programs and expenditures.

National samples give us precise information about trends across the country but their size is such that they cannot tell us about local areas or smaller groups. Consider the important issue of which groups benefited from the economic growth of this decade and which fell behind. Throughout the 1990s incomes and earnings rose, but there is clear evidence of polarization as the gap between those at the top and bottom got larger. Did this occur in all parts of the United States, or is it more pronounced in some cities and states than in others? If so, why? Is the shift toward greater economic inequality evident for all educational groups or only for some? What about occupations? Evidence from the census of 1990 suggested that earnings inequality was growing within specific professions and job categories. Did that continue in the 1990s? Only the census will inform us. The overall poverty rate is decreasing but it remains high for some groups, especially minority children. The census will inform us about such issues and will shed some light on the success or failure of ameliorative programs.

A comparison of findings from the two most recent censuses shows that young women made considerable progress in the labor market in the 1980s as they were increasingly represented in occupations formerly dominated by men. The gender gap in earnings also grew smaller. Did this continue in the 1990s? We need a very large sample size to determine if the gender change among veterinarians, insurance adjusters, and bartenders continued.

“The census is the only source of information about which racial groups live on each block.”

The 1990 census reported modest decrease in black-white residential segregation as substantial numbers of African Americans moved from central cities to the suburban ring. Did this trend, perhaps encouraged by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, persist? The Asian and the Hispanic-origin populations are now growing extremely rapidly. They have traditionally been much less residentially segregated than blacks from non-Hispanic whites. Is that still the case? The census is the only source of information about which racial groups live on each block.

In addition to giving us information about local geographic areas and groups far too small to show up in meaningful numbers on national surveys, the census inquires about important topics not investigated in other studies. Three such topics are migration within this country, commuting from home to work, and international migration. The census of 2000 will ask one American in six where he or she lived in 1995, allowing us to describe who is moving where. Are many retirees still moving from the Midwest and Northeast to Florida and Arizona? In this prosperous era is there a substantial or only a modest flow of low-skill workers from places of high unemployment to places where jobs are plentiful? Are many rural counties across the nation losing population or is there new evidence of a rural renaissance similar to that one that occurred briefly in the 1970s, propelled, perhaps, by low energy costs? Are there many high-tech workers in the computer industry who are moving themselves and their jobs to locations in rural Colorado or Vermont where the scenic amenities are great but, until recently, jobs were few?

What types of people commute to which jobs? How long does it take them to get there? Do they use public transit or go in a car or van? If so, are they traveling by themselves or are they riding with others? Will the census supply us with evidence that minorities who remain in central city ghettos are missing out on good jobs located far out into the suburban ring, perhaps because of the absence of public transit, or does place of residence have little to do with employment or occupation? Answers to these questions have significant implications for local planning and for understanding how labor markets favor some workers and disadvantage others. But these questions can only be answered by scrutinizing data for the decennial census.

Approximately one-third of our total population growth is due to immigration but these new arrivals are hardly distributed evenly across the country. Rather they are highly concentrated in six states and 18 metropolises. Are immigrants filling jobs that American workers do not take either because they lack the credentials that immigrants bring or because Americans are reluctant to work at low-paid jobs in the service sector and agriculture? Are immigrants and their children geographically segregating themselves into enclaves or are they, unlike the African American population, pretty much dispersed across metropolitan areas including suburban rings? How do immigration streams differ from one another? We know from Census Bureau surveys and from Immigration and Naturalization Service data that Filipino immigrants report exceptionally great educational attainment while those from Mexico, south China, and Central America generally enter without much in the line of schooling. Only the census will give us detailed information about immigrants, their educational credentials, and their occupational achievements or failures in this country.

“Two innovations make the census of 2000 different from earlier enumerations.”

Two innovations make the census of 2000 different from earlier enumerations. The largest sample of households will be asked if a grandchild is living there. If so, the respondent will be asked to report whether a grandparent cares for a grandchild and, if so, for how long. For the first time we will be able to analyze specialized and comprehensive information about the frequency of grandparenting and the economic welfare of grandchildren—a topic currently of great interest, since press reports suggest that quite a few mothers who lose AFDC payments turn their children over to their own mothers.

Even more closely watched will be results from a new approach to obtaining answers to an old question—one that has appeared on every census. Census procedures have always assumed that each person could be identified with only one race. Now the census question about race has been fundamentally altered. Interracial marriage has increased since the 1960s, and with it multiracial children. In 2000, people will be told to mark all races that apply. Will only 1 or 2 percent of the population indicate that they are multiracial? Or will it be 5 or 7 percent who identify with two or more races?

This new procedure will give us, for the first time, a count of the increasing multiracial population and information about their education, their earnings and with whom they live, including the race of their spouses, sibs, and children. However, it also means that there will be no one number telling us how many whites, or blacks or Asians live in a city, state or electoral district. We will have a count of those who said, for instance, that African American was their only race and then a larger count of those who identified themselves as black along with one or two or three other races. The implications for civil rights litigation and for the drawing of electoral districts are uncertain. We can expect more than a few lawsuits since there will be competing valid counts of each racial group. And, for purposes of redrawing districts in state legislatures, it is possible that different states will use different definitions of race.

There have been lively controversies throughout our history about how the census should be taken and how census results should be used to apportion congressional seats. But since 1996, conflicts have been exceptionally bitter about the use of sampling to complete the count of population and then use of the subsequent post-enumeration survey to adjust for net census undercount. Indeed, this vociferous debate makes it likely that we will forget that the decennial census provides the nation with crucial information about who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going in this era of fast-paced social and economic change.

Reynolds Farley, a demographer, is Otis Dudley Duncan Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan and research scientist at the Population Studies Center. Farley has had an extensive relationship with the SSRC, including being part of the executive committee of the National Committee for Research on the 1980 Census (1980–1988). He also served as vice-president of the Russell Sage Foundation from 1997 to 1999 and authored The New American Reality: Who We Are, How We Got Here, Where We Are Going (New York: Russell Sage, 1996).

This essay originally appeared in Items Vol. 53, No. 1 in March of 1999. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.