Saturday, 10 July 2010

Plus ca change

So the UK census is expensive and inefficient and should be scrapped, according to Tory MP, Francis Maude. Next year's census will be the last in a system that dates back 200 years. In future, we can expect our population mapping to come from other (cheaper) sources such as the Post Office and credit reference agencies.

Since 1801, every ten years, the census of population has taken a snapshot of all people in the UK on a given date. In addition to recording the names and locations of all individuals in the jurisdiction on census day, each census gathered additional information such as occupation and religious persuasion. In it's 200 year history, 1941 was the only occasion when a UK census was not taken, due to the war.

Among the administrative institutions that Ireland inherited from the UK was the census of population. As a university student, I worked on two censuses - not because I was an eternal student but because the census of 1971 was postponed due to lack of funds and had to be rushed through in 1979 to ensure it was completed before the next due census in 1981.

A job as a census enumerater (what a grandiose addition to a CV) was better paid than other student jobs. Each census enumerator had an area of about 300 households to account for and final payment was withheld until all returns were submitted. My first census included a number of bed-sits and households that did not welcome the attention of the state. I learned to be persistent to the point of stalking my quarry. My second census was of an area that included a psychiatric hospital where I had to deal with fewer individual households but lots more bureaucracy.

Aside from the pay, working as a census enumerator helped me in my historical studies, giving me a special understanding of the value of the census in historical research. The census informed profound social and political change in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the 21st century, the world wide web helps the rivers of migration to connect with family around the globe.

The value of a census goes beyond knowing how many people live in a street. While it might be more cost-effective to get the numbers from other sources, this approach ignores the richer importance of this information. It also ignores the fact that those that want to hide will not be stalked by the persistent evaluator that wants to complete the picture.

Scrapping the census may not appear to be important in these times of economic crisis. But the buck has to stop somewhere and this is a very important place. Since the start of the banking crisis, the wealthy have raided the coffers of the ordinary - our penions and rights are eroded, our childrens' futures are sold, dead and gone. And now they plan to put the census into the hands of credit reference agencies. To cite Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karrm (former editor of Le Figaro) Plus ca change, plus c'est le meme chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same).