States Try to Save the Census

The Trump Regime may end up regretting their efforts to mess with our census. The state attorneys general are stepping up again—New York’s Eric T. Schneiderman says he is leading his colleagues in Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Washington in a lawsuit intended to stop the administration from adding a question to the 2020 census about citizenship. California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, has filed a separate lawsuit.
“If the bureau is ill-prepared for the job or a count is faulty, every state, every neighborhood, faces the risk of losing its fair share of federal funding for its people and its taxpayers,” Becerra wrote in an opinion column for the San Francisco Chronicle with California Secretary of State Alex Padilla on Monday, the day the Commerce Department announced that the 2020 census will ask people whether they are U.S. citizens for the first time since 1950.
The Department of Justice had requested the citizenship question be included to allow it to better enforce the Voting Rights Act, but critics fear that the question will severely dampen participation among minority populations, particularly in light of the current level of distrust between the Trump administration and communities of color.
Counting the people living in the United States every ten years isn’t just tradition—it’s required by the Constitution, which specifies that the number of representatives in the House should be based on the total number of residents of a state. The census is used to apportion representatives in state legislatures and local governments too. It affects how federal and state funding for schools, infrastructure, and hospitals gets distributed. It’s used by private businesses as well when they’re deciding where to locate stores and organize distribution networks. Researchers rely on data from the census in studies of public health issues (obesity and cancer rates, for example) and to target interventions for at-risk groups.
In short, undercounting populations in states with large numbers of immigrant residents (particularly California, New York, Texas, and Florida) and in urban centers (where most undocumented immigrants live) would be politically useful for Republicans. But it could be catastrophic for residents who end up without enough money for Head Start teachers, Pell grants, and highway repairs. Wendy Manning, Ph.D., the president of the Population Association of America, a nonprofit professional organization for researchers who study population data, writes that “As scientists, our members are concerned about the negative effect an untested citizenship question would have on decennial census response rates and, ultimately, the validity of the decennial data.”
The administration’s move comes just after Congress affirmed the importance of the 2020 census project by including $2.8 billion for the Census Bureau in the omnibus spending bill President Trump signed last week—that’s almost a billion dollars over what the Commerce Department had requested for it. This money came as a relief to many census-watchers, who had been worried that the whole project would be compromised from the start by lack of funding—the Government Accountability Office included the 2020 census in its 2017 High Risk Report, in part because budget shortfalls had hampered the preparation and testing efforts that lead up to the big event.
But even with adequate funding, getting immigrants to respond to census questions is difficult, and researchers have been running into extra resistance in the wake of racist rhetoric from Trump and his team. A memo from Center for Survey Measurement (CSM) field researchers released in September reported that respondents in immigrant communities were asking more questions about the confidentiality of the data they were sharing than was typical, and that some seemed to be lying.
“In particular, CSM researchers hear respondents express new concerns about topics like the ‘Muslim ban,’ discomfort ‘registering’ other household members by reporting their demographic characteristics, the dissolution of the ‘DACA’ program, repeated references to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, etc.,” says the memo, adding that respondent fears had increased markedly over previous years.
The Census Bureau is legally required to protect the privacy of its data from all requests, including those coming from government agencies and officials. But that’s not likely to assuage the fears of Latinos and others who already feel like targets of this administration. Jennifer Van Hook, a professor of sociology and demography at Penn State who has used census data in her research for more than 20 years and would love to have more detailed information about citizenship, wrote in February that “the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric may have increased mistrust among all immigrants, not just those who are undocumented.” She adds that there’s not enough time to figure out how to ask a citizenship question on the census that isn’t perceived as threatening.
Van Hook believes that adding a citizenship question without adequate testing “could severely reduce participation in the 2020 census among the country’s 44 million immigrants and the additional 32 million U.S.-born people who live with them.”
The state lawsuits aren’t the only potential stepping stone for the citizenship question—Democrats introduced legislation last week called the 2020 Census Improving Data Enhanced Accuracy (IDEA) Act, which would prohibit last-minute changes or additions to the questionnaire.
A statement from the Consortium of Social Science Associations, which advocates for federal policies that support behavioral science research, says, “We have no way of knowing what future insights will be lost if this data is compromised.”