Reynolds Farley offers historical perspective for Nantucket census debate to WSJ

October 9, 2018

As we inch further from the warmer months, The Wall Street Journal’s Jo Craven McGinty calls our attention back to Nantucket, a New England summer getaway, and questions of an accurate count of residents on the transient island. Conflicting counts of the number of permanent residents has the Ford School’s Professor Reynolds Farley recalling other instances of census disputes in “How Many People Live on Nantucket? Depends Whom You Ask” from October 5, 2018. 

Nantucket sees a population spike of 46,000 or more during the summer months followed by a dramatic drop to 11,229—or so the U.S. Census Bureau reports suggest. The newly established Nantucket Data Platform (NDP) takes issue with those numbers and has devised a new way of calculating population statistics; the NDP puts Nantucket’s year-round count at 17,200 people. Much is at stake, as census data determines Representative seats and federal funding allotments.

Deciding what constitutes a permanent resident is an age-old argument, Farley tells the WSJ, referring to a key issue with the 1920 census. At that time, a date change for census collection from June 1 to January 1 flipped where migrant workers were counted as residents. With rural migrant workers now regarded as residents of the cities they inhabited during the winter months, deliberation sprung up over how to use these statistics for U.S. House of Representative seat calculation. Professor Farley explains that the dispute was so controversial that policymakers ignored the new data, and started taking the census on April 1. 

Walter Reynolds Farley is the Dudley Duncan Professor emeritus of Sociology and a research scientist at the Population Studies Center. At the Ford School, Farley teaches about the history and future of Detroit.