A review of the BUREAUCRATIC DOCUMENT

U.S. Census of 2010

by The U.S. Census Bureau

Central Question: What can population counting teach us about American style?
Primary font of the 2010 census: Gotham; Secondary font: Arial; Cost of the census Super Bowl commercial in 2010: $2.5 million; Hourly wage of San Francisco census-taker in 2010: $22.00; Representative Constitutional passage (Article I, Section 2): “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”; Least inspiring slogan: “An opportunity for almost everyone to participate in a national enterprise” (1940); Most inspiring slogan inserted into fortune cookies: “Put down your chopsticks and get involved in Census 2010”; Number of questions on 2010 census: ten; Number on 1930 census: thirty; Number on 1790 census: four

The U.S. census is an enterprise so dull that the sheer size and scope of the dullness are exhilarating. Just processing the data from the census of 2010 will take until the end of 2013. Amid the deluge of numbers and slick visualizations, the language of the project will be largely forgotten, which is for the best in the case of the survey questions themselves. The use of the word Negro in question 9, the awkward designations for persons of “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin” in question 8, and the lack of options for transgender individuals in question 6 all sparked predictable controversies last year.

Worth saluting, by contrast, is the bizarrely compelling rhetoric surrounding the decennial questionnaire. Nowhere is the beauty of the banal so apparent as in the slogans, mailings, and brochures of the U.S. Census Bureau. The taglines churned out by its public-relations program—from you can know your country only if your country knows you (1940) to it counts for more than you think (1990)—represent each decade’s best effort to say nothing, offend nobody, and motivate everyone. Literally. The goal is to reach all 300 million people living in the United States, and motivation is key because for every 1 percent increase in participation, the government saves $85 million. That makes census sloganeering some of the highest-stakes wordsmithing around.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Jeremy Schmidt

Jeremy Schmidt is a doctoral student at UCLA, where he experiments with words and numbers. He also writes for AllMusic.

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