• U.S.

American Notes: Counting Heads

2 minute read

The vaudevillian’s line used to be, “From Omaha? Nice place to be from.” On the evidence of the 1970 census, the most prominent places to be from during the ’60s were North Dakota, which lost 2.3% of its population, South Dakota, which lost 2.1% and West Virginia, which lost 6.2%. A favorite place to go was still California, the last continental stop in the American migration, which became the nation’s most populous state, with 19,953,134 residents. In the final 1970 census figures, announced last week, California surpassed New York by 1.7 million, thus gaining five new seats in the House while New York loses two.

Population gain, of course, is no longer entirely a source of the civic booster’s pride. It offends the ecological sensibility. Yet it remains crucial to underdeveloped regions such as Appalachia and urban centers that watch their affluent whites desert to suburbs, eroding the tax base and more simply the fund of human beings on whom congressional representation and the apportionment of federal funds depend. More people to get more money to care for more people. The Malthusian Catch-22.

At a cost of nearly $1 per citizen, the 1970 census counted 204,765,770 Americans, including nearly 1,600,000 servicemen and civilians now living abroad. The population has grown some 24 million since the 1960 calculation. But the increase—13.3%—was the lowest in any decade since the low birthrate days of the Depression. For one thing, those relatively fewer babies born in the ’30s are now of the child-bearing generation of the ’60s; a trend toward smaller families helped to diminish the sum further. It was enough to encourage watchers of the population clock. They may not have forgotten, however, that William the Conqueror’s original census in 1087 was called, with a certain prophetic ring, the Doomsday Book.

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