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Citizenship Question Jeopardizes Census Accuracy, Undermines Funding Progress

The Trump Administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census will not only reduce responses by immigrants and thereby make the count less accurate, experts say, but it also could trigger new costs that offset part of the added census funding that the President and Congress just provided.

To be sure, the Census Bureau’s additional funding — which policymakers provided in their recent 2018 government funding bill — is welcome, although it still falls short of ensuring an accurate census so that each state has fair representation in Congress, districts are drawn fairly within states, and federal funding is allocated appropriately for programs from Medicaid to economic development to child care. The funding bill raised the bureau’s 2018 budget by $1.3 billion, to $2.8 billion, after several straight years of underfunding. It appears to fund important priorities — such as information technology systems that will support the census’s first-ever online response option — at about the level that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross requested last year.

The bill also includes some advance funding for 2019, which is important because the bureau next year will need to gear up quickly for the 2020 census, and it can’t afford to wait if policymakers are late again in enacting spending bills this fall, as is widely expected. In fact, much of the added $1.3 billion will likely be spent in 2019. Congress also directed the Census Bureau to expand its public communications and outreach work.

The Administration’s announcement, however, that the census will include a citizenship question could have a chilling effect on responses by immigrants and others, especially in the current political environment, igniting fears of how the government would use the information. In fact, the question could add millions of dollars to the cost of the 2020 census by suppressing initial responses and forcing the bureau to follow up with worried households as best it can. More immediately, the question makes more work for the bureau as it plans how to anticipate such fears and reassure non-citizens and citizens alike that the government will not misuse the data.

The Administration’s decision, which Ross announced, violates overwhelming expert advice:

  • The Census Bureau itself warned against adding the questions. As Ross’s own announcement admitted, “The Census Bureau…expressed concern” that the citizenship question would lower non-citizen response rates and “reduce the accuracy of the decennial census and increase costs.”
  • All living former Census Bureau directors have objected to adding a citizenship question. In a recent letter, six former directors — who served under both Republican and Democratic presidents — called adding the question "highly risky." "There is a great deal of evidence that even small changes in survey question order, wording, and instructions can have significant, and often unexpected, consequences for the rate, quality, and truthfulness of response," they warned. Four of these same former Census directors also wrote to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 that asking about citizenship status in the decennial census “would likely exacerbate privacy concerns and lead to inaccurate responses from non-citizens worried about a government record of their immigration status.…The sum effect would be bad Census data.” All nine living Census Bureau directors have at various times publicly opposed past efforts to add such a question.
  • The American Statistical Association wrote to Ross in January to “strongly caution” against adding the question.

The Administration has not provided a compelling reason for the question. Its chief claim — that adding the question would help enforcement of voting rights — makes little sense, according to Vanita Gupta, who served as President Obama’s top enforcer of the Voting Rights Act. Gupta, who now heads the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told Ross in a letter that “the Justice Department has never needed to add this new question to the decennial census to enforce the Voting Rights Act before” and “there is no reason it would need to do so now.”

Already, the enacted Census funding level does not appear to provide for the level of communications and outreach activities and field offices that stakeholder organizations had sought. With the new question, the bureau’s need to anticipate and overcome respondents’ fears will likely become even harder and more costly.