U.S. Census Bureau

NEW YORK — It was a decade when tens of millions of people in the U.S. experienced mass unemployment and social upheaval as the nation clawed its way out of the Great Depression and rumblings of global war were heard from abroad.

Now, intimate details of 132 million people who lived through the 1930s will be disclosed as the U.S. government releases the 1940 census on April 2 to the public for the first time after 72 years of privacy protection lapses.

Access to the records will be free and open to anyone on the Internet — but they will not be immediately name searchable.

For genealogists and family historians, the 1940 census release is the most important disclosure of ancestral secrets in a decade and could shake the branches of many family trees. Scholars expect the records to help draw a more pointillistic portrait of a transformative decade in American life.

Researchers might be able to follow the movement of refugees from war-torn Europe in the latter half of the 1930s; sketch out in more detail where 100,000 Japanese Americans interned during World War II were living before they were removed; and more fully trace the decades-long migration of blacks from the rural South to cities.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard University professor and scholar of black history who has promoted the tracing of family ancestry through popular television shows, said the release of the records will be a “great contribution to American society.”

Gates, whose new PBS series “Finding Your Roots” begins March 25, said the “goldmine” of 1940 records would add important layers of detail to an existing collection of opened census records dating to 1790.

“It’s such a rare gift,” he said of the public’s access to census records, “especially for people who believe that establishing their family trees is important for understanding their relationship to American democracy, the history of our country, and to a larger sense of themselves.”

The release will greatly increase access to information on Japanese-American Internment during WWII, lives and labor affected by the Great Depression, as well as for historical and genealogical data.

“What we’ll be able to do now, which we really couldn’t do, is to take a look at what the Japanese-American community looked like on the eve of evacuation,” said Anderson, a professor of history and urban studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

More than 120,000 enumerators surveyed 132 million people for the Sixteenth Decennial Census — 21 million of whom are alive today in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The survey contained 34 questions directed at all households, plus 16 supplemental questions asked of 5 percent of the population. New questions reflected the government’s intent on documenting the turbulent decade, by generating data on homelessness, migration, widespread unemployment, irregular salaries and fertility decline.

Some of the most contentious questions focused on personal income and were deemed so sensitive they were placed at the end of the survey. Less than 300,000 people opted to have their income responses sealed.

In part because of the need to overcome a growing reluctance by the American public to answer questionnaires and fears about some new questions, the bureau launched its biggest outreach and promotional campaign up to that time, according to records obtained at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y.

It opened its first Division of Public Affairs to blanket the country with its message, reaching out to over 10,000 publications and recruiting public officials, clergy and business owners to promote it.

Movie studios were enlisted to encourage their film stars to participate, including Cesar Romero, who later played the Joker in the Batman television series. A photograph of President Franklin D. Roosevelt taking the census also was used for the campaign.

The bureau also hired the managing editor of “Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life” to galvanize support in the black community. However, studies in the 1940s revealed undercounts, including 13 percent of draft-age black men.

In a first for the National Archives and Records Administration, the nation’s recordkeeper plans to post the entire census on the Internet — its biggest digitization effort to date.

That might be unsurprising given that increasingly popular online ancestry services make vast amounts of genealogical data available. But for previous decennial census releases, researchers had to trek to NARA branches to crank through microfilm machines.

Still, finding a name in the 3.8 million digitized images won’t be as easy as a Google search: It could be at least six months after the release before a nationwide name index is created.

In the meantime, researchers will need an address to determine a census enumeration district — a way to carve up the map for surveying — to identify where someone lived and then browse the records.

Some experts said enthusiasm for the release could be dampened by the lack of a name index, especially for novices.

“It may very well frustrate the newcomers,” said Thomas Macentee, an industry analyst helping recruit volunteers for a name indexing effort sponsored in part by the Mormon-run FamilySearch.org. “It’s like showing up on Black Friday. If you really want that TV set, if you really want that census record, you are going to be ready to go and you are going to keep at it no matter what.”

Publicly-traded Ancestry.com, which has over 1.7 million customers, is also working to make the census records searchable by indexing almost all fields and providing proprietary tools to mine the data.

Josh Hanna, a senior adviser for the company, said the 1940 census will be the biggest database of its kind. “It’ll be the deepest level of indexing we’ve ever done,” he said. Access to the index and tools will be available for free through the end of 2013.

Other individuals and organizations across the country are also working to ease the use of the records, including the New York Public Library, which is digitizing the full set of New York City’s 1940 telephone books to help people locate addresses.

Genealogy societies and libraries also have been holding packed workshops to educate their members.

In January, about three dozen people gathered in Manhattan for a meeting of the MetroNY Genealogy & Computers Special Interest Group to discuss the census. They included Michelle Novak, who has spent six years searching for information about her paternal grandfather, but has no street address to help locate him.

Novak, 43, said family members recalled him as a heavy drinker who worked long hours for the Pennsylvania Railroad and abandoned his family in the early 1930s.

But the few records she has been able to find include a signature in a railroad pension book. She believes the 1940 census might hold additional answers.

“If I can find one record, anything, it may help,” she said in an email after the meeting. “Even if I find him in jail or deceased, at least I will have an answer.”

Printed on Tuesday, March 20, 2012 as: Census covering Great Depression to be released in next few weeks

Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a two-part series about the 2010 Census in South Texas.

Before the official ensus count ended, community activists and local elected officials in the Rio Grande Valley warned that the region’s population figures would suffer from a severe undercount.

As Texas’ population figures were released Thursday, three of the Valley’s four county judges said they are likely to sue the bureau to force an adjustment in the counties’ population estimates.

According to the data, Hidalgo County saw a 36-percent increase in its population since 2000, from 569,463 to 774,769. But Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia said he thinks the figure stands at closer to 1 million.

San Antonio-based attorney Rolando Rios said the undercount in Valley colonias — communities along the Texas-Mexico border — is not surprising.

“Decade after decade, this happens,” said Rios, who has been involved in census disputes in South Texas since the 1970s. “There are always mistakes when [the census] comes down here.”

Rios said Valley lawyers must make the case that the population in Valley counties has boomed more than the bureau thought. If the bureau’s neighborhood data estimates that 10 people live on a certain block in Hidalgo County, for example, the lawyers must go to the block and physically count the number of people they see living there.

The Equal Voice Network, a cohort of local groups that have worked in the colonias for decades, offers services and community support for the low-income, often migrant workers that live there.

“An undercount is bad news,” said Mike Seifert, the network’s spokesman. “But down here, it’s like a hurricane you don’t recover from.”

The network was been involved in a months-long media campaign in the colonias, where the bureau was supposed to mail out the forms. But colonia residents began contacting some community groups because they did not receive any forms, and some reported unannounced visits from census workers. The network demanded a meeting with the highest leadership in the bureau.

When U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves arrived from Washington, D.C. on April 17, he faced a tense meeting with the network and other community volunteers.

“Too many people and too short of time to deal with this,” according to Seifert’s minutes. “We were misled from the beginning. The Census Bureau needs to take responsibility that they were engaged in a yearlong misinformation campaign.”

The networks also urged bureau officials to allow colonia leaders to accompany the door-to-door counters — a suggestion the bureau rejected citing confidentiality concerns. In the meeting, Groves said allowing some of the community groups to help with the count could appear as preferential treatment.

“Of course, that’s what we want,” Seifert said. “We want them to go out of their way to count down here, because it is so difficult.”

Every step of the way, census representatives said they did exactly that. Calling it “the Cadillac” of enumeration plans, the door-to-door method is the most costly but the most accurate, said Gabriel Sanchez, the bureau’s regional director.

But target advertising is not easy for the bureau, which must distribute materials to communities across the nation. Sanchez said the bureau spent $600 million on the national advertising campaign. Most of the census posters and other literature distributed to colonia community groups were the same mailed to other regions that received mail-in forms.

“It’s kind of hard to segregate the public message when people are every day being bombarded with, ‘Mail it back, mail it back,’” Sanchez said. “It’s very hard to segregate that message and make sure you only hear what’s important to you.”

This series is made possible by the Helen M. Powell Traveling Fellowship.

Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a two-part series about the 2010 census in South Texas.

A group of long-standing community groups and local officials are ramping up their charge of a massive undercount of South Texas colonias, the low-income communities along the Texas-Mexico border. The move comes after the U.S. Census Bureau released preliminary figures Thursday of the 2010 census, including county breakdowns in Texas.

The Rio Grande Valley, the state’s southernmost region, includes four counties and is home to more than 1 million Texans. In Hidalgo County, the Valley’s most populous, the estimated population in 2000 stood at 569,463, according to census data. Preliminary 2010 census data places the number at 774,769.

Texas boasts more colonias than any other state and the largest colonia population in the nation. More than half of the 400,000 Texans that live in these communities are located in the Valley, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s website.

A network of 11 community groups called Equal Voice Network have worked in the communities for decades and volunteered their help as the bureau began to count the colonias. The groups include some of the most notable of the Mexican-American civil rights era, including La Unión del Pueblo Entero, which César Chávez founded, and ARISE, an empowerment group for colonia women.

“We know these places,” said Mike Seifert, the network’s spokesman. “We know what we’re doing here, and it’s that truth the Census Bureau should remember whenever they’re dealing with us.”

Colonias started gaining popularity in the 1950s, when property developers bought cheap, low-lying land not viable for agricultural production — usually in rural and unincorporated areas — to build houses that often lacked proper infrastructure. The 2,294 colonias in Texas remain an affordable housing option for the state’s low-income families, most notably Hispanic migrant workers and illegal immigrants.

Colonia communities continue to face issues with access to basic amenities, including potable water, electricity and indoor plumbing. Heavy rainfall, for example, will leave some areas flooded for months because of the lack of basic irrigation and drainage systems.

Still, in the past 30 years, colonia residents have organized to get some basic necessities, including their mail, which was key when the 2010 census was set to begin.

The bureau prepared for a large-scale public relations campaign in South Texas, including the colonias. Valley lawmakers and community groups said the Census Bureau told them in January 2010 that colonia residents would receive their forms in their mailboxes.

The media campaign, particularly in Hidalgo County colonias, focused on how easy it was to complete and return the form. The community groups also emphasized that the forms were confidential (no U.S. citizenship questions) and important to return (the census count would determine the allocation of federal funds).

U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-McAllen, distributed 100,000 bilingual fliers about the mail-in form to colonia residents in his district. Seifert credited the community outreach effort — most of it done four months before Census Day — with educating colonia residents about the importance of returning the form. He said the bureau provided adequate resources to help the groups, including census literature and trained personnel.

“The initial response we got from residents was, ‘We wanted to be counted,’” he said. “The census did a great job of having people on the ground.”

However, about a week before Census Day, April 1, colonias contacted some community groups because they did not receive any forms. Some reported unannounced visits from census workers.

“It was on April 1. We thought that was kind of ironic — looking back on it — that it was April Fool’s Day because we didn’t think it was really funny that we got contacted that they were not mailing them out to the colonias, that they were going to walk the colonias,” said Ann Cass, executive director of Proyecto Azeteca, another community group in the network.

Gabriel Sanchez, the Census regional director in Dallas, said the bureau has used door-to-door updates for the South Texas colonias since the 1970s.

“We’ve always done it like that down there because it is so difficult to count,” he said. “

Sanchez said the bureau finalized the door-to-door count, officially called Update/Enumerate, in February 2009.

As the groups scrambled to change their message, Census Bureau Director Robert Groves arrived in the Valley, facing a tough crowd.

This series is made possible by the Helen M. Powell Traveling Fellowship.