This is a rule by which many genealogists plan their lives.
Once a decade, the US Census Bureau tries to gather the names, home addresses and other details of every person living in the country for a count.
And 72 years after National Census Day, records containing all of this information are being shared with the public, including family historians eager to flesh out their genealogical charts.
This policy – called the “72-year rule” – was enshrined in law in 1978 and is now part of the current confidentiality promise that the office relies on to convince households to be counted.
This year, on April 1, files from the historic 1950 census — the first U.S. count to include baby boomers — will be released for the first time.
But exactly why seven and five decades have become the specific length of time to keep census records confidential has baffled scholars – including Jessie Kratz, the National Archives historian, who is responsible for making census records public.
“Everybody just said, ‘You know, 72 years is a lifetime,'” Kratz recalls the commonly quoted explanation she first heard after she started working at the archives. of the federal government.
But the average life expectancy in the United States was closer to 73 when the 72-year rule became federal law, the National Center for Health Statistics reported.
72 years may be the result of bureaucratic coincidence
When asked for an interview about the 72-year-old’s origins, the Census Bureau directed NPR to a web page with no clear answers. The website, however, highlights a 1952 exchange of letters on which the 1978 law is based.
Sent between Wayne Grover, the Archivist of the United States at the time, and former Census Bureau Director Roy Peel, the letters detail an agreement that after “seventy-two years from the date of enumeration of a decennial census, the National Archives and Records Service may release information contained in such records for use in connection with legitimate historical, genealogical, or other valid research.”
Kratz and some longtime census watchers say the letters are part of an uneven trail of clues to their theory about what lies behind 72 years — a bureaucratic fluke.
The theory dates back to the early days of the Archives, when the fledgling federal agency, Kratz says, “had to go around convincing all of these agencies that in fact, we were the right custodian of these federal records.”
In 1934, the year the Archives was established, the Census Bureau was not convinced. He had already set up his own system to access information stored in Washington, D.C.
“These records, which cannot be replaced if lost or destroyed, would be of little use to the public if transferred to the Office of Records without keeping them in this building under the direct supervision of the Census Director and if arrangements were made for a number of researchers and correspondence clerks,” Census Bureau Director William Lane Austin wrote in a 1934 memo to the Secretary of Commerce, who oversaw the bureau.
But less than a decade later — during World War II and the same year the office moved from downtown Washington to the suburb of Suitland, Maryland — office officials had apparently changed their minds.
“Census records up to 1870 are not considered confidential and may be used for legitimate research purposes by individuals,” reads an Archives press release announcing the transfer of the first batch of census records. .
“The National Archives, like the Census Bureau, however, is constrained by the pressure of war work to limit its searches of these records to war-related requests, such as those involving birth data needed for enlistments or by war industry workers.
It was 1942, 72 years after the 1870 census.
Researchers are still trying to find direct evidence of the 72-year-old’s origins
Kratz, the National Archives historian, suspects that officials at the time were using that 72-year period as a guide to when information could be released under the 1952 agreement between the Archives and the office on the regular transfer of census records.
“That would be my biggest guess, even though I haven’t seen a paper that says that,” she says of the theory as to why the office manager proposed the “seventy-two year expiration” in 1952 (when, the American Surgeon General at the time told newspaper readers, the average life expectancy was 68).
Kratz recently wrote a blog post that details a disagreement that emerged in the 1970s over how long census records should be kept confidential and who in the public can have access to them. He blocked the release of the 1900 census records until 1973, and in the end the dispute was settled by Congress with the 1978 law.
Yet during a 1973 congressional hearing, archivist James Rhoads told lawmakers that the Archives had “found no evidence in the records specifically explaining why 72 was chosen” for the 1952 deal.
More than two years later, in a hearing in 1975, then acting archivist James O’Neill seemed to support Kratz’s theory.
“The 1870 census records were made available when they were transferred to the Archives in 1942, 72 years after the census. This set the 72-year precedent for restrictions on population census records,” said said O’Neill.
There’s a case to be made for a 77-year rule
For David McMillen, a former Census Bureau employee who later worked for the Archives and attempted to trace this history, the question of why 72 years remains open.
“It’s funny, isn’t it?” said McMillen. “There is no definitive answer to this question.”
Margo Anderson, America’s leading census historian and author of The U.S. Census: A Social Historynotes that this is a common conundrum when considering decisions about registrations for once-a-decade counts.
“The people who did it the last time may not be around anymore,” adds Anderson, who has also studied the complicated history of the breaking of privacy protections during World War II that allowed the using census records to identify people of Japanese descent living in the Washington, DC area.
What is clear today is that the 1978 law does allow the 72-year rule between the director of the Census Bureau and the archivist of the United States to be renegotiated.
There are no signs of active talks.
But if a person’s lifespan is the rule of thumb the government wants to use, the latest data on average life expectancy in the United States could help make the case for a new rule on the length of protection. census records: 77 years.