U.S. Census releases digital versions of 1940 survey

The Takeaway

By law, the statistics taken by the United States census are kept secret for 72 years, a deadline which expired Monday for the 1940 census.

Now, researchers are excited to see what the unveiled census data can tell us about American history.

Connie Potter, archivist and senior genealogy specialist at the National Archives, said the 1940 census asked deeper questions than previous census records.

“For the first time [the 1940 census] asks, ‘where did you live 5 years ago?’ And also there is a supplemental schedule with additional questions. This was really a precursor of the long form and the American Community Survey.”

Potter said this trove of information brings out the people behind census statistics.

“There are 13 questions on employment and this reflects that this is taking place during the depression,” Potter said. “And there are a lot of women not working, there is a section for homeworkers.”

According to Potter, some of our contemporary assumptions about American society in the 1940s might change with the release of census data.

“It’s surprising, but between April 1, 1935 and 1940 there isn’t as much migration as you would think,” Potter said.

Of the 132 million Americans surveyed in the 16th decennial census, 21 million of them are alive today.

This statistic has had some personal privacy advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, opposed to the release of census data. In an interview with the Associated Press, Jay Stanley of the ACLU said releasing census data allows too much public access to personal information.

“Computer technology today allows you to take information from different sources and combine it into a very high-resolution image of somebody’s life,” he said. “Each particular piece of information might just be one pixel, but when brought together, they become very intrusive.”

Others believe this information will be a boon for historians and people interested in their family’s history.

The 1940 census records are free and available to the public at the website of the census archives: http://1940census.archives.gov/

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