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The 1840 U.S. Census Was Overly Interested in Americans' Mental Health

May 15, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

The 2020 census won’t ask you about how many people in your family are “idiots” or “insane,” but in 1840 that , and “associated with all kinds of social problems.” The belief was “it’s necessary to institutionalize them and keep them away from the rest of us, because they tend to be engaged in petty crimes.”

Many nativists felt that, because they perceived a large number of social problems in their communities, there must be many “feeble-minded” people causing them—far more than the census was counting. Even the U.S. Census Bureau seemed to think this, writing in an 1880 report that its tally of “insane” and “idiotic” people “was certainly less than half the number actually present.”

These concerns about the census’ accuracy may have been the reason the U.S. Census Bureau stopped counting people with mental disabilities on its national census in 1900. However, the concern with “feeble-minded” people didn’t go away. The Census Bureau performed a couple of mini-censuses after 1900 focusing only on people in asylums, hospitals or other institutional facilities.

By that time, these institutions were no longer focusing solely on caring for mentally disabled people and teaching them work skills. Increasingly, they wanted to keep feeble-minded people locked up indefinitely so they couldn’t reproduce. “The founder of the New York State Asylum for Idiots…create[d] what becomes a eugenic institution, in many ways, for feeble-minded women,” Rose says. “Women were released after menopause, and they were often then just dumped in the poor house.”

American eugenics was most popular in the early 20th century, during the same period when Nazi Germany was obsessed with creating a “master race” (the Nazis actually took inspiration from discriminatory U.S. laws). But eugenic practices like forced sterilization continued all the way up until the 1970s and ‘80s in the U.S., targeting especially people who were poor, Indigenous, non-white or immigrants.

READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About the U.S. Census

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