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The Missing History of the Disclosure of Individual Responses in the American Census: What Happened and Why it Matters Now

Cite as: 6 Geo. L. Tech. Rev. 408 (2022)

Currently, the U.S. Census Bureau “Confidentiality Fact Sheet” states:1

Your responses to the 2020 Census are safe, secure, and protected by federal law. Your answers can only be used to produce statistics—they cannot be used against you in any way. By law, all responses to U.S. Census Bureau household and business surveys are kept completely confidential.

Looking at the timeline of statutory, legislative, and technological developments surrounding disclosure of information ever since the first census, the Bureau acknowledges that “[i]t wasn’t always that way.”2 However, the Bureau does not adequately explain what that other “way” was, when it changed, or exactly what the practices for releasing of individual-level census responses were at any particular time in the nation’s history.3

This paper aims to address that historical gap. For most of the nation’s history, Census officials, political leaders, and the American public supported seemingly contradictory policies. Census administrative policy and law defined how to release individual-level responses to census inquiries, but they simultaneously banned the publication of tabulations that revealed any particular establishment’s or individual’s identity.

Why review this history now? I do so because, at the current moment, the census laws and practices governing individual-level responses are under strain. The new methods used during the 2020 census collection to “protect” census responses have been controversial, have produced anomalous results in the 2020 data releases to-date, and have delayed the release of further results.4

This paper examines the origins of the current legal and policy framing. Part 1 locates these policies in the larger issues surrounding census- taking in the American constitutional system. Part 2 traces the development of disclosure avoidance rules and technologies, as well as the logic and practices of individual data release, particularly focusing on twentieth century developments. Given that Congress removed most of the authorizing language for language authorizing individual-level data release through the Mid-Decade Census Act of 1976, Part 3 draws out some of the implications of this complex history with reference to balancing data use and protection of respondend identity.

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Margo Anderson

Dr. Margo Anderson is a Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. She specializes in American social, urban and women's history and has research interests in both urban history and the history of the social sciences and the development of statistical data systems, particularly the census. Her publications include the second edition of The American Census: A Social History; Encyclopedia of the U.S. Census: From the Constitution to the American Community Survey and a coedited volume with Victor Greene, Perspectives on Milwaukee's Past. With UWM Professor Amanda Seligman, she is Lead Editor of the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee. In 2006 she served as the President of the Social Science History Association. She currently serves on the Committee on National Statistics’ Panel to Evaluate the Quality of the 2020 Census.