The tradition of census records is almost as old as recorded history itself. There is evidence that China compiled lists of inhabitants for tax and military purposes as early as 2300 BC and for similar reasons, ancient Babylonia and Egypt conducted a census of its citizens.Military motives were also behind the early French censuses in the mid-17th century. The first five-year enumeration in France was initiated later, in 1836. Across the channel, the first official census of England and Wales was earlier held in 1801. Interestingly there was general opposition to an official census until the end of the 18th century. However, demographer Thomas Malthus’s seminal essay on the ‘principle of population’ in 1798 proved so alarming by suggesting that population growth would outstrip supplies of food and other resources, the Parliament of the day were convinced of the need for a census. A census became required by statute in 1800 and the first official head count was nine million! The English/Scottish census has been conducted every ten years except in 1941, during the Second World War. Ireland was to follow suit, conducting their first modern census in 1821, some twenty years later.
The United States has conducted a ten-yearly census since 1790, with the constitution mandating an “actual enumeration” of the population. The purpose was initially so that representatives and taxes could be correctly apportioned among the states. Observers note that the census approach in essence “connects the American people to their government”. The founders anticipated geographic and demographic dynamism and their perceptions were proven correct, with reapportionment occurring after almost every census since then. Neighbouring Canada conducted its first census in 1871, taking on a five-year cycle in 1901.
While history revealed very early enumeration practice in China, The People’s Republic of China has officially conducted six censuses (in 1953, 1964, 1982, 1990, 2000 and 2010) and now commits to a ten-year cycle. When China conducted its 1953 census, the population stood at 583 million. By the sixth census in 2010, the population had more than doubled, reaching 1,339,724,852 to be exact.
The census in New Zealand has been an enduring initiative with the first census undertaken in 1851. However, the early census approach – with provinces having their own government, and undertaking provincial censuses, at different times – meant it was difficult to assume accurate information about the nation as a whole. The first five-yearly census of the whole country occurred in 1881, after provincial governments were abolished in 1877.
Five-yearly censuses have continued in New Zealand to the present day, except for three instances. The Depression caused the 1931 census to be abandoned. In 1941, with many New Zealanders involved in World War II, the census was postponed until the end of the war. More recently, the census scheduled for March 2011 was not held because of the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake.
Across the ditch, the Australian census has been administered once every five years since 1961. Prior to that time, censuses were irregular, occurring in 1901, 1911, 1921, 1933, 1947, and 1954.
The procedure of systematically acquiring and recording information about the members of a given population through a census is a world-wide practice, yet not all countries subscribe. While the United Nations passed a resolution requiring all member countries to complete a census by 2004, there are some notable exceptions. Germany abandoned their census in 1987 amid widespread citizen fears as to what the information would be used for. The Netherlands halted their census practice in 1971 due to high refusal rates. Denmark has turned to other information sources for data about their population.
In New Zealand, the government has been questioning the future of our census, particularly in the last couple of years. There are a number of discussion papers appearing on Stats NZ website (check them out on http://www.stats.govt.nz/surveys_and_methods/methods/research-papers/topss.aspx ). In the face of the history of the census in this country and internationally, there does not seem much argument about the value of census data. The focus appears largely on the frequency and approach to the census delivery. Options being aired include continuing with present five-year approach or pushing out to a ten-year cycle, ten-year short census with large-scale intercensal surveys, rolling census and administrative census. Whatever the future decisions are, electronic channels or e-census practices will have a huge future part to play.