7 Billion and Counting: World Population and the American Census

Margot Anderson –

July 11 is World Population Day, a yearly commemoration established in 1989 by the Governing Council of the United Nations Development Program of the United Nations to focus attention on world population issues.  This year’s theme focuses on “Vulnerable Populations in Emergencies” particularly the “hygiene, health, dignity, safety and protection” of “women and adolescents.”

The U.N. started the commemorations in the 1980s dramatize development issues in the ‘human population,’ particularly the explosion of global population from 1 billion at the turn of the nineteenth century to 2.5 billion in 1950 to 5 billion in 1987.  (The world population is over 7 billion now.)  Is the human population at risk for running out of resources to sustain itself?  Are some parts of the globe growing too fast?  What about the quality of human life?

Unlike wars, elections, economic crises, technical innovations, and the like, it’s hard to “see” population change.  And it’s even harder to measure, explain, or dramatize.  Hence the U.N. population professionals efforts to find a way to draw attention to dramatic demographic events, even if for just one day each year, to find a way to make “news” of this unobtrusive process of growth, decline, migration, mortality, fertility.

Serendipitously, perhaps, the United States built something like a “population day” into its political system and social life in 1787 when it established the federal Constitution and required the federal government to count the population every ten years, and use the results to apportion seats in the House of Representatives and Electoral College among the states “according to their respective numbers.”  (They also intended for “direct taxes” to be apportioned among the states according to population, but that constitutional provision proved to be a dead letter and was repealed in 1911 with the 16th Amendment.)

The U.S. took its first national census in 1790 and has done so every ten years ever since, despite wars, economic crises, and massive social and economic change.  That first census counted 3.9 million people in 13 states hugging the Eastern seaboard.  The last one in 2010 counted 308.7 million people in 50 states across the continent.

So as the years went on, Americans became aware that the population grew by rates of 30-35% a decade until about 1880 (now it’s in the 10% a decade range).  They learned about their dramatic geographic diversity, and their huge ethnic and racial diversity as they spread out and pushed the Native population almost to oblivion. Internal migrants and immigrants from around the globe peopled the continent, mostly free, but also slave until the Civil War abolished race based chattel slavery.

Now each April 1 in the year ending in 0 Americans have a Census Day to initiate the count.  By December 31 of the year, the Census Bureau reports the results of that count, and reports the reallocation of the seats in the House of Representatives among the states. State legislatures around the country then draw new congressional districts according to the changes in population for congressional seats and for their own legislative districts.  Local governments do the same at the local level.  It’s a big deal, and arguably the political implications of the decennial reapportionment and redistricting based on population change have as much impact on the American political system as an election.  As with elections, there are winners and losers from the shifts in power and resources based on population change, and as with elections, the changes tend to prompt discussions about social responsibility and the fairness and equity of the overall political system.

Americans have an automatic reminder of their demographic situation every ten years, and because those numbers get written into the funding formulas, shape legislative districts, and become the subject of countless media stories, the census triggers not only commemoration, but also political action.  World Population Day allows us to see these demographic challenges at the global level.  Perhaps in years to come, there will also be the global political will to build stronger instrumentalities to manage population change and humanitarian crises, acknowledge responsibility for doing something about vulnerable populations, and improve the human condition overall.

Margo Anderson is distinguished professor of history and urban studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and is widely regarded as a major authority on the census, both inside and outside academia.

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