The Political Consequences of the U.S. Census

By Davies, Philip John | Contemporary Review, November 2001 | Go to article overview

The Political Consequences of the U.S. Census


Davies, Philip John, Contemporary Review


THE first US census was conducted in 1790 after the passage that year of the Census Act. The process was one signal that the young and recently independent nation was adopting more modem approaches than its perceived former 'oppressor', Britain, to politics and policy - it was another eleven years before the first modern British census took place. The motivation for the count in the US was directly political, and was stated in Article I of the Constitution of the United States, which established the Congress of the United States. While each and every state was to have two Senators, the number of members in the House of Representatives was to be determined by the population size of the various states. The number of Electoral College votes exercised by each state in the presidential election is equal to the state's total number of Senators and Representatives, so the census simultaneously determines each state's representation in the legislative and presidential electoral processes. Interim arrangements were ag reed to get things started, but they were not to be allowed to last long, as Article I, Section 2 makes clear: 'The actual Enumeration shall be made within three years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten years, in such manner as they shall by law direct'. This process put in train a complex link between geography, demography and politics that continues to exercise enormous influence in the United States more than two centuries later.

For that first census and for each one since then the Bureau of the Census has calculated the geographical position of the 'mean centre of population' for the US. In 1790 the centre was judged to be near Chestertown, Maryland. This notional point of balance moved steadily west through the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries. In 1800 the US population was centred on Baltimore, Maryland. Moving through Virginia, and what is now West Virginia in the first half of the nineteenth century, by 1850 it had shifted 250 miles west, to Parkersburg. Carrying on through Ohio and Kentucky, the centre point reached Greenburg, Indiana in 1890. By 1900 it had travelled west about another 250 miles in the previous 50 years, and was located in Columbus, Indiana. The rate of the westward shift of the centre of population slowed by about one-half in the next half-century. but it continued to edge across Indiana and, by 1950, on to Olney, illinois. Since 1950 the population centre has resumed something of its nineteenth-century westward pace, and the trend has, in addition, developed a distinct tendency towards the south, so that by 1990 the population was centred on a point in Crawford County, Missouri, some 10 miles south-east of Steelville, Missouri. In the decade up to 2000 the centre moved a further 32.5 miles west, and 12.1 miles south, to a position near Edgar Springs in Phelps County, Missouri. This single, cumulative indicator has moved more than 1,000 miles over the 210 years of US census returns, travelling steadily westwards, and bending increasingly towards the south in a way that traces the growing significance of the West and, more recently, the South in attracting settlement, and in gathering political clout and significance.

Kevin Phillips invented the term 'sunbelt' in his 1969 book The Emerging Republican Majority, signalling a growing awareness of and interest in areas of significant economic and population growth in some Southern and Western states. During the final third of the twentieth century employment growth in the West and South steadily and consistently outpaced that in the Midwest and the Northeast. The South became the nation's largest regional economy, while the West, with a smaller starting base, posted consistently top line growth rates. In 1975 the Northeast and Midwest regions of the USA accounted for 52 per cent of the nations' jobs total. By 1995 the South and West hosted 55 per cent of the national employment. …

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