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Gallup Vault: The Nation's First Jobs Poll
Gallup Vault

Gallup Vault: The Nation's First Jobs Poll

In April 1937, Gallup gauged public support for what was then a special federal effort to measure U.S. unemployment, asking, "Do you think the government should try to find out how many persons are unemployed by taking a national census?" About two-thirds of Americans in that national survey said it was a good idea, while just over a quarter disagreed.

1937: Support for the First Unemployment Census
Do you think the government should try to find out how many persons are unemployed by taking a national census?
U.S. adults%
Yes 68
No 26
No opinion 6
Gallup, April 21-26, 1937

The nation was still in the grip of the Great Depression in 1937, yet the government was relying on unemployment figures from the 1930 census to guide President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal legislation. It needed more timely data, and the proposed solution was a special national unemployment census conducted via a postcard survey delivered by mail on Nov. 16, 1937, to every U.S. household. Only the unemployed and underemployed were supposed to fill out and return the postcards, and Roosevelt even dedicated his 11th Fireside Chat to the census, explaining the program and imploring all Americans who qualified to participate.

But government researchers became concerned that using the postcards to estimate the percentage unemployed would be difficult without knowing how many unemployed persons had not returned the cards. So, at the same time, the Works Progress Administration (later known as the Work Projects Administration) conducted a scientific unemployment survey -- what it called the Enumerative Check Census. This survey, administered by postal workers at the doors of a random sample of 2% of U.S. households, found 17.8% of U.S. residents aged 15 to 74 meeting the criteria as either unemployed (11.8%) or partially employed (6%). And the success of this effort led directly to the establishment of the government's "Monthly Report of Unemployment" in 1940.

Given this, the important Gallup finding on this subject in 1937 came a week after the government executed the voluntary postcard census. In a poll conducted Nov. 21-26, Gallup asked a national sample of 2,780 Americans, "Did you send in an unemployment census card last week?" It found 18% saying they had, suggesting the government's postcard census and Enumerative Check Census were closely aligned.

These data can be found in Gallup Analytics.

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