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1940 Census data: what you need to know to look up relatives

Monday's release of 1940 Census data sets off frenzy to dig into records on family past, crashing the website. When it comes back online, you'll need to know a few basics.

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As David Ferriero, the archivist of the United States, said, it’s a “street-level view.”

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For that reason, many historians will also be shifting through the 3.9 million images as well. “Up until now, we had an outline. Now we can look at the individual tiles in the mosaic,” said David Sicilia, a history professor at the University of Maryland, at the Census press conference.

He points out that by looking at the individual data, historians can “explode” myths. For example, the aggregate data may indicate a city or community had only a minor change in population. However, the individual data may show that Americans were moving from city to city in search of jobs.

By culling through the data, Mr. Sicilia says, historians will be able to determine property values, the size and frequency of mortgages, which homes had radios and flush toilets, and even what fuels were used for cooking. Some intrepid researchers may be to determine who were the top “1 percent” of 1939, the year the Census was taken.

But, Sicilia says, the most intriguing information will come from researchers who look at the information in terms what it says about larger groups. For example, historians can look at African Americans to see where they were living, how many were veterans, and how many owned radios. “Let’s get a better understanding of how our forebears experienced the Great Depression – it can only make us wiser,” he says.

Economists have already studied the broader data that was released by the Census in 1943. One of those who became students of the data is Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.

“It really does drive his thinking,” says Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors in New Holland, Pa. One of the lessons Bernanke learned: Even after the Great Depression ended and the economy showed growth from 1933 to 1937, another recession followed. The Census Data shows the toll the downturns took: The unemployment rate was still 15 percent, almost 38 percent of Americans earned under $1,000 a year, and a measurable number of people ages 14 to 15 worked.

“When you were poor then, you were really poor,” says Mr. Naroff.

In the meantime, the top 1 percent of Americans earned $5,000 or more, which was about five times as much as the average American. With the release of the data, some researcher will be able discover who they were.

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