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Udry Lecture: Steve Ruggles, “It’s None of Their Damn Business”: Privacy and Disclosure Control in the U.S. Census, 1790-2022

March 30 @ 3:00 pm - 4:30 pm

The 2023 J. Richard Udry Distinguished Lecture will be presented by Steven Ruggles, the Regents Professor of History and Director of the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota.

Title: “It’s None of Their Damn Business”: Privacy and Disclosure Control in the U.S. Census, 1790-2022


The U.S. Census Bureau is implementing new methods of disclosure control that will reduce the usability of publicly accessible population data. To understand the rationale for the cutbacks in access to data, we must grapple with the history of privacy concerns surrounding the census and the government’s response to those concerns. This paper traces the history of privacy and disclosure control since the first U.S. census in 1790. We argue that controlling public access to census information has never been an effective response to public concerns about government intrusion. We conclude that the Census Bureau should weigh the costs of curtailing access to reliable data against realistic measures of the benefit of new approaches to disclosure control.

Biography from PAA: “Steve is best known as the creator of the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS), the world’s largest population database, spanning two centuries and 100 countries. Steve’s lifelong addiction to data began early. By age eight, he was coding data for a penny a case for his parents, economists Richard and Nancy Ruggles. Leaving home brought no escape; as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Steve became interested in historical demography and joined the Center for Demography and Ecology. Steve went on to graduate school in history at the University of Pennsylvania, where Sam Preston showed up bearing the brand-new 1900 Public Use Sample that became the centerpiece of Steve’s dissertation (as well as of his moving article, “Confessions of a Micro-Simulator”). After receiving his 1984, Steve returned to Wisconsin as a postdoc. While at Penn and Wisconsin, Steve observed planning and production for two major historical census projects directed by Preston and Hal Winsborough. This exposure to like-minded data enthusiasts sealed his scholarly fate.

When Steve arrived at the University of Minnesota, he partnered with Russell Menard to obtain funding from NIH and NSF to create samples of the 1850 and 1880 censuses. By 1991, public use microdata files existed for eight U.S. census years between 1880 and 1980, potentially allowing consistent analysis of long-run demographic change. Steve was awarded a grant to make a compatible version of all these datasets and the IPUMS was born. To make IPUMS possible, Steve designed several significant innovations, including the first metadata-based data integration system (1991) and the first interactive website for large scale data dissemination (1995).

In 1999, when the U.S. census series was nearly complete, Steve and his colleagues expanded IPUMS beyond U.S. census data to include international microdata and data from the Current Population Survey. IPUMS data integration technology underlies other large-scale projects, including the Integrated Health Interview Series (IHIS) and the Integrated Demographic and Health Series (IDHS). In 2001, Steve and John Adams received an NSF grant to create the National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS), a comprehensive source for aggregate statistical data and geographic data describing spatial characteristics of the U.S. population from 1790 to the present. Steve and collaborators are now working on Terra Populus, which integrates global data on population and the environment over the past two centuries. The newest project is “Big Microdata,” which aims to develop complete microdata for all U.S. censuses between 1790 and 1940, covering 700 million persons. He is also working with the Census Bureau to convert Census Bureau internal microdata to IPUMS format and to link the historical census data to modern censuses, surveys, and administrative records.

Steve’s contributions to demography are not solely the data infrastructure that underlies so much scholarship in our field. His own research focuses on historical family demography, especially on long-run changes in intergenerational co-residence, single parenthood, divorce, and marriage. In a book and more than 30 articles, he has analyzed the impact of demographic and economic change on family composition, marriage, and divorce. He has consistently taken positions at odds with the conventional wisdom. For example, Steve argued that Early Modern England did not have a nuclear family system, that family reconstitutions studies are systematically biased by migration censoring, and that divorce risk in the U.S. has risen substantially since 1980. Departing from cultural interpretations of family change, Steve argues that families in developed countries were transformed by industrialization and the rise of wage labor, first among men and then among women.

Steve is also the founding Director of the Minnesota Population Center. The Center was established in 2000 with 20 members and a small grant from the University of Minnesota. Shortly thereafter, Steve submitted a successful proposal for a R24 center grant from NICHD. MPC has grown to serve 95 population researchers from 10 colleges and 26 departments at the University of Minnesota—and more than 70,000 researchers worldwide who use MPC data.

Steve has been recognized for his service to the field and his academic accomplishments by American Sociological Association, Social Science History Association, the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, and the PAA. Steve was honored to serve as the President of the PAA in 2015.”


March 30
3:00 pm - 4:30 pm
Event Category:


Pleasants Family Assembly Room, Wilson Library
200 South Road
Chapel Hill, NC 27515 United States
(919) 962-3765


Carolina Population Center