Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Friday, October 25, 2013

Americans Abroad: The Story of the Census

"Would it not be a great satisfaction to the king to know at a designated moment every year the number of his subjects, in total and by region, with all the resources, wealth and poverty of each place...
Would it not be a useful and necessary pleasure for him to be able, in his own office, to review in an hour's time the present and past condition of a great realm of which he is the head, and be able himself to know with certitude in what consists his grandeur, his wealth and his strengths?"

Marquis de Vauban

This was the enticing argument a French noble placed before the French king Louis XIV in 1686 in support of the creation of an annual census.  Note that nothing whatsoever was said about the benefits that might accrue to the people.  At that time, there weren't any - the census, and other schemes to make resources in a realm legible, really had no other purpose than to make it easier for the state to exploit them.  This fact was not lost on the peasantry and resistance to being counted was rife. Whether is was a census taker or a taxman, an agent of the state was seldom welcomed with open arms and sometimes they were even "disappeared."

In a modern state the census has other purposes as well.  It is a means by which the state can gather statistics and do research in order to (one hopes) better serve the population through social programs or economic planning.  It is also, in some democratic nation-states, a way to apportion representation.  How many seats a region has in one chamber of the national parliament is based on census data.  Something that makes the census an integral part of the democratic process.

The U.S. Congress is composed of two houses:  the Senate and the House of Representatives.  The first is fixed with 100 members, two senators from each state.  The second is also a fixed number (435 members) but the alloted number of representatives in different regions changes based on the rise or fall of population.   Since 1790 census data is what determines how many representatives each district gets and keeps until the next one and then the cards are reshuffled once again.  This is actually mandated by the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 2).

In the original US census in the late 18th century this is what was deemed worthy of counting:
The six inquiries in 1790 called for the name of the head of the family and the number of persons in each household of the following descriptions:
Free White males of 16 years and upward (to assess the country's industrial and military potential)
Free White males under 16 years
Free White females
All other free persons
All these people were counted and yet not all were given the same weight for the purposes of determining representation:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
Times changed and the census in 2010 bore little resemblance to the one conducted in 1790.  However, the basic purpose remains:  this is how political representation is allocated and that makes it a very serious exercise indeed.

Counting people within a national territory as large as the United States is a daunting task.  Counting Americans not living within that national territory is an even larger challenge.  According to the excellent study by Karen Mills (US Census Bureau):  "Only twice in the first 100 years of census-taking began in the U.S. in 1790 were separate counts of the American overseas population reported in the decennial censuses."  The first was in 1830 and the second in 1840.  After that there was a 60 year hiatus until Americans abroad were once again on the radar of the state in the early 20th century.  Who was counted?  It was primarily Federal employees or US personnel on merchant vessels.  It wasn't until 1960 that an attempt was made to count civilians living abroad.  It was a voluntary census and does not seem to have been very successful.  Another attempt was made in 1970 and was also unsuccessful.  The only numbers that were reliable and used for apportionment were military and federal employees.  Here was the count for those populations:

US Armed Forces:  1, 076, 431
Civilian Federal Employees:  67, 993
Dependents of both Military and Civilian Employees:  436,574

What happened with the civilian count?  Though the US Census Bureau tried to get the word out through churches, schools, chambers of commerce, local media, embassies and the like, the response was very poor.  Mills speculates on the reasons for this:

1.  Many Americans abroad didn't get the word.  If they lived in remote areas it's quite likely that they didn't even know there was census.

2.  Dual citizens may have been unsure as to whether or not they should participate.

3.  Many may have simply decided not to participate at all.  No desire on their part to be counted.  In any case, participation was strictly voluntary.  Even today Americans outside the U.S. are not required to register with the local US Embassy, much less stand up and be counted.  Many choose not to.  Why is that?

I can only speak for myself here but the short answer I would give is that there is no perceived benefit to doing so and some suspicion as to what registration will be used for.  I did register when I was living in Japan and then found my email inundated with travel advisories for places I had no intention of going.  It was interesting to read but not terribly useful.  In general the only reason I ever go the US Embassy in any of the places where I've lived (all modern democratic nation-states) is to renew my and the Frenchling's US passports.  That has meant a trip about every 4 or 5 years.  Now that my daughters are adults that will diminish to about once every 10 years.  (At this time, I do not even know who the US Ambassador to France is though I'm dead certain there is one.)   Other than that, as a long-term American resident of another developed country, my perception is that there simply aren't many services at the local embassy that fit my needs.  If that perception is erroneous, I am more than happy to be corrected.

So the 1970 and 1980 attempts to count American citizens abroad were complete flops and the numbers  simply weren't useable for apportionment except in the case of US military personnel and Federal employees.

That means that right up to the present day if the American president or Congress asks the American equivalent of the Marquis de Vauban, "So, what is the extent of our realm and the subjects (citizens) abroad and their resources in this globalized world?" The answer would be, "We have no idea."  Only guesses, estimates, and speculation.

Is that the end of the story?  Not quite because in 2001 the question of counting American civilians abroad came up yet again and this time it was at the request of Americans abroad themselves.

We'll talk about that in tomorrow's post.


Sauve said...

I absolutely agree with you regarding the US Embassy in Paris. I registered and was inundated with warnings about travel. Worse still, it seems that all I get is terrorist threats in my vicinity that recommend I do not travel at all, stay away from all public places and crowds, so on and so forth. I get the distinct impression I am under house arrest. I simply had them sent to my spam folder. What I can't figure out is why there are no travel warnings to the USA? I was there last year and astounded by the sheer number of people carrying handguns. As a matter of fact the only person who didn't have a concealed handgun was my daughter. When people came to the hospital to visit her after the birth of her baby they brought their handguns and it was restricted to no handguns. Maybe there have been travel advisories to the USA. I just wouldn't know. What I am 100% sure of is that I detest going to the embassy where I find I am treated more as a I imagine a criminal would be treated than as an upstanding citizen. I do know who is the US Ambassador to France, Charles Rivkin. But I have absolutely no idea what he does other than hobnob with other politically appointed wealthy people. What I do know is that no one in the USA government represents expats in the world. I have the distinct impression, and yes it comes from the occasional needs to go to the embassy, that the only persons the US government serves is its military personnel. But if you happen to be an ordinary citizen and are looking for some type of help, well good luck with that.

A broken man on a Halifax pier said...

The first question is: who is an 'American abroad'? If the answer is something like: 'Whoever Congress defines as a US citizen, living outside the United States,' then we start to see the logistical problems in counting them. In practice there is a gradation of USCs abroad, ranging from people who were born in the US for some accidental reason and left as infants (who might be quite hostile to the idea that the US defined them as citizens, let alone that they have complex tax reporting obligations - there are lots of people like this in Canada) to real expatriates who think of themselves as Americans living in a foreign country.

The Canadian census in 2006 turned up about 300,000 people who self-identified as US citizens (about half of whom were also Canadian citizens), while the State Department estimates there are about a million USCs in Canada. State's estimate is necessarily a bit wild, but it does get at the reality of the situation to some extent - many more people are legally USCs in Canada, and elsewhere, than are aware of the fact or willing to acknowledge it. US law doesn't allow for shades of grey in citizenship, but they very much exist in practice, which creates difficulties with a statistically plausible census.

(One partial solution would be to use other countries' censuses - somewhere on the ACA's Web site is a paper that goes into what dozens of national censuses said about resident Americans.)

Probably a more realistic goal would be to mine US passport data - holders of passports can be categorized as high-commitment Americans abroad, and data on them already exists. It's a bit problematic, in the sense that duals who are low-commitment on the US side of their two citizenships may have passports because they're required to use one to enter the US, but it might be the basis for an achievable exercise.

Yasmin said...

I'm an American living abroad in South Africa, and I have yet to register with the embassy here. I think that attitude comes from my having been the US Army - I learned quickly that anything "optional" should be avoided as it's usually a means to their ends (getting people to mow grass on Sunday, for example).

Maybe I've read too much Heinlein but I honestly feel the less the government knows about me, the better off I am. That's a dangerous mindset to have as a practicing Muslim, however...

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Sauve: I had a very similar impression. It's as if they were trying to convince that the world was a really dangerous place. I thought this was funny coming from the Americans given the murder and mayhem statistics there.

@Broken man: Absolutely and what we will see in the next installment is that the US gov is aware of all the problems. The testimony of the State department at the hearing is quite revealing.

@Yasmin, Yes, never volunteer for anything. :-)
I think Europeans have a good take on it. They saw up front and person how data could be used to hurt people. They are very sensitive to issues around personal privacy and data protection. I think they're right to be concerned.

As Americans abroad we are damned if we do and damned if we don't. The fact that they don't know much about us gives our detractors free rein to paint us in any way they like (and the picture is usually very ugly indeed). But if we come forward to be counted, who is to say that we would be better off?

It's a terrible conundrum and alas we are all these days filled with a sinking feeling that the US gov really is out to get us.