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Counting heads

May 9, 2011

German authorities have begun conducting the first census since the country was reunited in 1990. The EU requires its member states to conduct a census every 10 years, but for many Germans this is no routine matter.

People on a busy street
EU states have to count their population every 10 yearsImage: picture alliance/dpa

German authorities began conducting a national census of its population on Monday, the first such survey since the country was reunited in 1990. The last census in West Germany was conducted in 1987, while the last in East Germany was held in 1981.

Under European Union regulations, Germany and all other member states are now required to hold a census once every 10 years - which is also the timeframe recommended by the United Nations.

Germany's Federal Statistical Office launched a publicity campaign several weeks ahead of the start of the census. The television ads, billboards and website were designed to nip any resistance to taking part in the census in the bud. The central message is: Germany needs this census.

"Germany needs up-to-date data in order to plan for the future," said Roderich Egeler, the president of the Federal Statistical Office.

Three groups

Unlike the last census in West Germany in 1987, in which an effort was made to survey every resident of the country, the 2011 census will be conducted using a mixed-mode method.

Approximately 8 million residents, or about 10 percent of the population, will be required to fill out surveys, either in person with one of the 80,000 enumerators or through the Internet. This information is to be combined with already available data.

The census is meant to gather demographic information about things like age, sex or citizenship, as well as level of education, whether the respondent has a second job, or is from an immigrant background.

The information about people not actually surveyed is to be provided by municipal residents' registries and the Federal Labor Agency.

The second part of the census concerns the estimated 17.5 million people who own residential property in Germany. According to the authorities, this is necessary because too little information currently exists about the availability of living space in Germany. Such data can help municipalities determine things like how many child-care centers or water lines are needed.

Roderich Egeler, President of the Federal Statistical Office
Roderich Egeler says Germany needs accurate numbersImage: picture alliance/dpa

The third group is made up of people who live in what is considered as "special situations", like people who live in student residences, monasteries, old-age homes, psychiatric homes or prisons.

"We know that the data from these areas aren't reliable enough to be used to generate an official number of inhabitants," said Annette Pfeiffer, the head of communications for Census 2011.

The census will also make an effort to count the number of homeless and people who are residing in Germany illegally.

Concerns about surrendering personal information

By the end of this process, officials will have gathered a great deal of data about Germany's population - something which in the past has made some people uncomfortable.

In 1983, the fear in West Germany was so great that opponents of the census won a court injunction to get it stopped. This led to a Constitutional Court decision recognizing an individual's right to determine how his or her personal information is used.

Part of the reason for the hostility towards the census was Germany's history - detailed records from two censuses in the 1930s gave the Nazis data they used to systematically hunt down and murder millions of Jews.

After some changes were made, including a pledge that the information gathered would not be passed along to other government agencies, the court allowed the census to go ahead in 1987.

Moderate criticism

The head of the 2011 census commission, Gert Wagner, says this time around citizens can also rest assured that the information gathered will not be passed on to third parties.

"The statistics system is separated from the administration," Wagner said. "To use a term from the world of computers: The firewall is very high."

In general there has been far less public criticism of the 2011 census compared to 1987, and a court refused to hear a legal challenge launched by a group of concerned citizens.

It also seems that the attitude towards a census in general has changed over the years. A representative survey conducted by the Hamburg opinion poll firm Eyes and Ears found that, among 18-29 year olds, 74 percent were in favor of a census, but only 57 percent of those over 50 expressed the same opinion. This may be an indication that the younger generation, which has grown up with Facebook and other social media, has less of a problem sharing personal information than their parents do.

A basis for financial planning

The total cost of the 2011 census is estimated at 710 million euros ($1 billion). That's money well spent, according to Egeler of the Federal Statistical Office.

"Take for example the significance of official population figures when it comes to transfer payments between the states, or the transfer payments from states to municipalities," he said. "Defining the boundaries of constituencies for elections is another practical example of the value of a census."

Author: Kay-Alexander Scholz / pfd
Editor: Martin Kuebler