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genealogy NOTES

New Questions in the

h1940 CENSUS h
B y C onstanc e P ott e r

The 1940 census will be released—digitally—on April 2, 2012.

The digital images will be accessible via the Internet, either at home or at a National Archives facility. It
will not be released on microfilm. For more information, see the 1940 web site at
E very 10 years the National Archives and Records Administration
(NARA) releases a new federal population census. On April 2,
2012, NARA will open the 1940 census in accordance with the 72-
year restriction on access to census schedules. As with every census,
the 1940 census shows the social, political, and economic issues of
the previous decade. The 1940 census reflects the Great Depression
of the 1930s. This census asked some questions not asked in earlier
censuses.1 The enumerator indicated the person in each home who
answered the questions, each person’s residence in 1935, and whether
a person was working in one of the public works programs of the
New Deal, such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA),2
the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), or the National Youth
Administration (NYA). Other new questions covered employment
and education.
At the bottom of each schedule, a supplementary census asked
additional questions of two people enumerated on preselected lines
on the form. These supplemental questions related to the birthplace
of the respondent’s parents, veterans’ service, and Social Security and
Railroad Retirement, two new national insurance plans. On both the
complete form and the supplemental form, people gave the industry
they work in and their specific occupation.

National Youth Administration (NYA) Instrument Repair Shop, March 4, 1941. The 1940 census
asked about participation in public emergency projects including the NYA, WPA, and CCC.

New Questions in the 1940 Census Prologue 47

Citizenship of the Foreign Born (Column 6) household. If you find it necessary to obtain the
Beginning with the 1900 census, people were asked if they information from a person who is not a member of
were naturalized, had filed their papers, or were aliens. In the household write the name of this person in the left-
1940, the Census Bureau added the category “American hand margin, opposite the entries for the household,
Citizen Born Abroad” (Am. Cit.), which covered people thus: “Information from John Brown, neighbor.”4
born abroad or at sea. A person born aboard was an American
citizen if (a) his or her father was an American citizen who Education—Highest Grade of
had resided in the United States before the time of the child’s School Completed (Column 14)
birth, or (b) the person was born after May 24, 1934, if Although questions about education were asked in
either parent was an American citizen who had resided in the earlier censuses, this is the first time the census asked for
United States before the time of the child’s birth.3 the highest grade of school completed.

Identification of Persons Furnishing In What Place Did This Person Live

Information (Column 7) on April 1, 1935? (Columns 17–16)
Knowing who answered the questions may explain why The Census Bureau, interested in internal migration, asked worked at
certain questions were answered the way they were, but everyone where he or she lived on April 1, 1935. The bureau rebuilding
before the 1940 census, the schedule did not show who defined migrants as “those persons who lived in 1935 in a the nation’s
gave the information to the census taker. In 1940 the county, or quasi county, different from the one in which infrastructure,
which included
enumerators were instructed to: they were living in 1940. A quasi county was a city that had
public buildings
100,000 inhabitants or more in 1930.” The bureau defined
such as this
Write an X with a circle around it x in col. 7 after nonmigrants as people living in the same county, or quasi bus terminal
the name of the person who furnishes you with county, in 1935 as in 1940.5 in Hackensack,
the information concerning the members of the Immigrants were defined as people living in the New Jersey.

48 Prologue Winter 2010

Table I. Population 14 years old and over in the labor force, by migration status, type of migrations, and sex, for the United States, 1940.7

Migration status Number: Number: Number: % Distribution: % Distribution % Distribution

and type of migration Total Male Female Total Male Female
Total Labor Force 52,789,499 39,944,240 12,845,259 100.0 100.0 100.0
Non-migrants 44,929,168 34,011,522 10,917,646 85.1 85.1 85.0
Migrants 7,261,507 5,483,314 1,778,193 13.8 13.7 13.8
Migrants within 4,079,456 3,070,940 1,008,516 7.7 7.7 7.9
a state
Migrants between 1,500,793 1,133,826 366,967 2.8 2.8 2.9
contiguous states
Migrants between non- 1,681,258 1,278,548 402,710 3.2 3.2 3.1
continguous states
Immigrants 188,346 136,230 52,116 0.4 0.3 0.4
Migration status 410,478 313,174 97,304 0.8 0.8 0.8
not reported

WPA workers continental United States in 1940 who reported that their questions were “Amount of money, wages, or salary received
build a road place of residence in 1935 was in an outlying territory, (including commissions)” (column 32) and “Did this per-
between Clearfield
possession of the United States, or in a foreign country.6 son receive income of $50 or more from sources other than
and Shawsville,
Pennsylvania, to
money wages or salary (Y or N)” (column 33).
cut off seven miles Employment Status (Columns 21–33)
between farmers The schedule asked 13 questions about the employment Public Emergency Work (Column 22)
and markets. status of people 14 years old and older. Included in the new The census asked if anyone in the household during the

New Questions in the 1940 Census Prologue 49

week of March 24–30, 1940, was at work on, or assigned could have been misclassified.9 The census reported
to, public emergency work projects conducted by the 2,529,606 people were employed on public emergency
WPA, the NYA, the CCC, or state or local work relief work. About the time of the census, however, 2,908,196
agencies. The WPA, established May 6, 1935, developed were recorded on the payrolls of the federal emergency
programs to move unemployed workers from relief to work agencies, excluding the NYA Student Work
jobs. The WPA workers, among other things, rebuilt Program.
the national infrastructure, wrote guides to the 48 The degree of misclassification varied greatly from
states, worked in the arts and theater, and assisted with state to state. Among the factors responsible were
disaster relief. The NYA, established under the WPA, confusion about the classification of certain types of
gave part-time jobs to high school and college students public emergency work on the part of the enumerators
to earn money to continue their education. The CCC, and respondents, the classification of certain types of
created March 31, 1933, employed men aged 18–25 in public emergency work, and the reluctance of some
conservation work in the national parks and forests.8 people to report that they were on emergency work. The
most common type of misclassification was the reporting
Misclassification of Persons of emergency workers as “at work” rather than as “on
Mr. Whitehall and
on Public Emergency Work public emergency work.” Persons on the NYA Student
the NYA Quartet
After the completion of the census, the Census Bureau Work Program were very frequently reported as in
participate in a
noted that many people on public emergency work school and not in the labor force. There is also evidence radio workshop.
A WPA worker
helps build a
public comfort
station at
Powell’s Fort
Camp in Virginia.

that a considerable number of emergency workers were The supplemental schedule also asked about
classified as seeking work. participation in two national insurance plans—Social
Security and Railroad Retirement (columns 42–44).
Questions on the Supplemental Schedules Although Civil War pensions may be considered the
Starting with the 1880 census, people were asked not first large-scale pension program in the United States, the
only where they were born but also the birthplace of their pensions did not cover all aged people. In 1906, old age
father and mother. In the 1940 census, this question was qualified a soldier for a pension. By 1910, more than 90
moved to the supplemental schedule. In columns 36–37, percent of the remaining Civil War veterans were getting
the person was to give the place of birth of the father and a pension; however, this comprised only about 6 percent
the mother. of the population.10 Various state and private insurance
For the first time, the census did not ask if a person plans were tried before the 1930s, but the advent of the
served in the Civil War. Veterans (columns 39–41) Great Depression made a national program of national
were asked if they served in the World War, Spanish- insurance a necessity. The Railroad Retirement Board
American War, Philippine Insurrection, or Boxer covered railway employees.
Rebellion and if in a Regular Establishment (Army, The Social Security Act, signed into law by President
Navy, or Marine Corps), peacetime service only, or Franklin Roosevelt on August 14, 1935, included
another war or expedition. The wife, widow, or under unemployment insurance, old age assistance, aid to
18-year-old child of a veteran was also required to dependent children, and grants to states to provide
answer the questions. various forms of medical care.11

New Questions in the 1940 Census Prologue 51

* * * *
Note on Sources
Census records are the only records that theoretically The author would like to thank James Collins, John P. Deeben,
describe the entire population of the United States on Katherine Vollen, the genealogy aids at the National Archives and
Records Administration, and Thomas E. Weir, Jr., who first got me
a particular day. The 1940 census is no different. The
interested in census records.
answers to the new questions—and the old—will tell 1
For more information on the questions, see 1940 Census
us, in detail, what the United States looked like on Forms and Questions Asked on the 1940 Census at
(click on 1940 census).
April 1, 1940, and what issues were most relevant to 2
The Instructions to the Enumerators refer to the Works Progress Ad-
Americans after a decade of economic depression. As ministration; the Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United
States refers to the Work Projects Administration (Record Group 69).
with all censuses, the answers to these questions may 3
Instructions to the Enumerator, 1940 Census at www.archives.
lead to different avenues of research. gov (click on 1940 census).
Bureau of the Census, U.S. Department of Commerce,
16th Census of the United States, 1940, Population: Internal
To learn more about Migration 1935 to 1940: Economic Characteristics of Migrants (U.S.
• NARA's genealogy records and how to Government Printing Office: Washington, DC, 1946), p. 1.
Ibid., p. 1.
get started doing genealogy research at the 7
Ibid., p. 2.
National Archives, go to
For a comprehensive history of the WPA, see Nick Taylor,
American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put
genealogy/. the Nation to Work (Bantam Books: New York, 2008).
• Census records at the National Archives, go to 9
Bureau of the Census, Population: Internal Migration 1935
to 1940, p. 4. 10
Social Security Administration, Historical Background and
• Past U.S. censuses in general, go to Development of Social Security (
publications/prologue/, click on “Genealogy Notes.” html), page 4, accessed September 17, 2010.
Ibid., p. 21.

Below: The supplemental schedule asked selected people if they Constance Potter is a reference archivist specializing in federal
had applied for Social Security, which included old age benefits and records of genealogical interest held at the National Archives and
other assistance to those in need. Records Administration.

52 Prologue Winter 2010