A trove of digital records released this week by the Census Bureau and National Archives offers a detailed picture of how Americans lived during the Great Depression.
The 1940 Census was unique in that for the first time it asked Americans questions about their employment status, education and value of their property or how much rent they paid. The survey results also show how much has changed over the decades.
A sturdy breeze and a set of wind chimes are making springtime music behind Deb Wagner's house near the corner of 27th and Knox avenues in north Minneapolis. Wagner looks at a printed copy of a Census survey of the people who lived in her home 72 years ago.
"Yeah, 2709, Elias, Florence and they had one son," Wager said.
Wagner already knew that Elias Mangni, his wife, Florence, and their son, Roger, lived in the house. Wagner and her husband bought the house from one of the Mangni's grandchildren in 1984. But the survey contained some information Wagner did not know.
Mangni listed his occupation as a brick layer in building construction. He worked 48 weeks of the year in 1939 and made $2,000.
"Oh, my gosh," Wager said. "Amazing."
According to the survey, Elias Mangni had an 8th grade education. His wife, Florence, had attended high school for a year. They reported that the house was valued at $7,500.
Wagner said Mangni built the bungalow in 1926. She said the Mangnis lived in the house until Elias died and Florence moved into a nursing home. Wagner is a realtor who works almost exclusively in north Minneapolis. She has seen this pattern of residential turnover happen not just on her block, but all over the north side.
"I think one of the things that really got me involved in doing real estate is that I was concerned about the kids not caring about this neighborhood as their parents were leaving," Wagner said. "To them, this neighborhood was chopped liver at the time. They had their eyes on big houses in the suburbs and they just wanted to be rid of these older homes."
The exodus of elderly, white homeowners from the north side has helped change the neighborhood in many significant ways. The 1940 Census information released earlier this week helps illustrate just how much.
MPR News examined Census surveys of residents who lived in homes along Knox Avenue N. between 26th and 28th avenues in 1940. The people were all white, and nearly all of the residents owned their homes.
"Things have changed pretty dramatically when we look at just the composition of the neighborhood," said Andi Egbert, a researcher with the Minnesota State Demographic Center. She compared data from the Census tract that encompassed the neighborhood in 1940 and compared it to the latest information from 2010.
Egbert said in 1940, 100 percent of people living in this section of north Minneapolis were white. Today, more than half of residents are black. Only a fifth of the residents are white. The rest are Asian and Hispanic.
Foreign born immigrants made up 12 percent of the population here in 1940. Egbert said a majority of the newcomers came from Sweden, Norway and Germany. However, none of the immigrants living in this part of north Minneapolis come from Europe. More than half are Hmong, Egbert said.
The population has not only become more diverse, it has become better educated. In 1940, more than half of the people who lived here had not finished high school. Seventy years later, just more than a quarter of people in the neighborhood did not graduate.
That so many people in 1940 did not complete high school may not come as a big surprise. During the Great Depression, many Americans had to leave school in order to work. But some numbers surprised Egbert.
"In 1940, there are actually fewer people unemployed in this neighborhood — only 11 percent, which is still quite high," Egbert said. "But today we have 16 percent of the labor force who is seeking work."
Like the people who lived here more than 70 years ago, hard times are not new to this part of north Minneapolis. The area is still recovering from the foreclosure crisis, and a tornado that damaged homes just a few blocks from here last year.