Stand Up and Be Counted in National Census

By Joshua Comenetz

Published November 07, 2003, issue of November 07, 2003.
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Census questions on religion aren’t perfect. In 2001, the governments of Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand discovered via census responses that more than half a million Jedi Knights reside within their borders. To judge by the numbers, followers of the faith of Star Wars outnumber Jews in Britain and New Zealand.

If that’s how people react to a census question on religion, why bother? And why should the American Jewish community support government intrusion into religious identity, when government and religion are supposed to be separate?

The decade-long debate over the validity and interpretation of the National Jewish Population Surveys of 1990 and 2000-01 show that the gathering of Jewish demographic data should be separated from its interpretation. The NJPS is conducted by academics and community planners — the same people who explain and apply the results. Thus, the NJPS is not and cannot be neutral or fully objective. In contrast, the U.S. Census is run by a government agency but census results are primarily studied and interpreted outside that agency. Sure, the census count is not perfect — yes, its questions could be asked differently — but there is no conflict of interest between the gatherers and users of the data.

All the other large English-speaking countries — Australia, Britain, Canada, India, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa — ask a census religion question. American Jews outnumber the Jews of all these countries together by a factor of five to one, yet have no consistent demographic data source.

One of the most common arguments against a census religion question is that people, Jews in particular, will refuse to state their religion to the government. Every country with a religion question experiences refusal, but the amazing fact is that the vast majority of people, Jews included, do respond. After all, even in the Soviet census, a substantial fraction of Jews so identified themselves — this in a country where there were definite risks associated with public Jewish identification. And Americans cheerfully tell pollsters about their income, political views, sexual orientation, religion and other supposedly private characteristics, so why expect a problem with religion in the census?

The great strength of a census is that it provides a consistent, national baseline with a high level of geographic detail. Any imaginable risk is minimal: Individual census responses are strictly confidential, unavailable to government, law enforcement or the public. Anyway, in the Internet age, if someone wants to discover your personal details, there are easier ways than breaking into the U.S. Census Bureau.

On the other hand, the benefit would be immediate: If you know where the people are, you know where to focus further research, and you also know where to allocate scarce communal resources. As for that most controversial statistic from NJPS, the census can also measure intermarriage simply by counting the number of married couples of different religions. These statistics are easily obtained from Australia or Canada, but no one really knows what’s happening in the world’s largest Jewish community.

No, a census question would not replace local demographic surveys, not even the NJPS, though it would save money by allowing surveys to be geographically targeted. Surveys profile communities in detail — their level of observance, adherence to branches of Judaism and support of Israel. A census question would, however, define for the first time the true geographic scope of Judaism and every other American religion. In England, the addition of a religion question turned up many more Jews than expected. Even better, Jews were found virtually everywhere, beyond known communities. And of course everyone would benefit, not just Jews. No longer would there be any need to respond to, for example, fanciful claims about the size of the Muslim population.

Did the American Jewish population decline between 1990 and 2001? Impossible to say, there being no consistent information source for the time period in question. Are American Jews facing a demographic crisis? The intermarriage rate is clearly high compared to that of Canada or Australia, no matter the exact figure. How will the Jewish population change in the future? Anything is possible, though in the long run growth in the chasidic population is likely to compensate for losses elsewhere.

A census question would at least measure these changes in a consistent manner and would provide a solid foundation for future surveys. The potential value of this data is large, and the risks are small — let’s stand up and be counted.

Joshua Comenetz is assistant professor of geography at the University of Florida.

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