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Critics of a request to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census fear it will reduce response rates, harming accuracy and increasing the need for expensive face-to-face follow-up.

U.S. Census Bureau

2020 census gets huge budget boost, but addition of citizenship question worries critics

Money matters. But for supporters of the 2020 U.S. census, money isn’t everything. Even as advocates praise the generosity Congress showed the Census Bureau in the final 2018 spending bill it passed last week, they worry that a decision made yesterday by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to add a question about citizenship to the upcoming decennial head count could undermine its accuracy.

First the good news.

The spending bill gives the Census Bureau $2.814 billion in the current fiscal year that ends on 30 September. That’s nearly double the president’s 2018 request for the agency and almost $1 billion more than what advocates said it needed in the eighth year of the 10-year cycle to prepare for and conduct the decennial census in April 2020. Of that total, $2.544 billion goes into the account that funds the 2020 headcount and the American Community Survey, a rolling poll of 3.5 million residents using what had been the long form of the decennial census. And the 2020 census will get the lion’s share of that total. (The exact amount has yet to be determined.) 

The 2018 appropriation tops by more than $1 billion the $987 million Ross said the 2020 census needed. That figure added $187 million to the administration’s initial 2018 request, based on what Ross said were cost overruns in a new computer system for coordinating the agency’s preparations for the headcount.

But Congress went even further. Noting that 70% of the costs of the decennial census—now estimated to be $15.6 billion—come in the final 2 years, legislators in effect decided to make a down payment on that total in the 2018 budget. They also included some $50 million in contingency funding for 2018 that Ross had folded into his new estimate but not requested.

The largess was welcome by census advocates. "The dismal trend of many years of underfunding 2020 census preparations has finally been reversed,” says Phil Sparks of the Census Project, a nonprofit coalition based in Washington, D.C. “Our assessment is the Bureau now has the minimum resources needed to prepare for its constitutional mandate.”

Terri Ann Lowenthal, another veteran census watcher based in Connecticut, thinks the money also reflects self-interest. “I think the significant funding boost reflects a bipartisan recognition among lawmakers that the success of the census in all of their districts and states could be in jeopardy and that it is their responsibility to ensure a good outcome.”

Controversial question

But preparing for 2020 isn’t just about the money. Last December, the Department of Justice (DOJ) upset the usual orderly process of nailing down the final version of the census questionnaire by asking the agency to consider adding a question about citizenship. Justice officials say the change is needed to enforce federal laws regarding voter eligibility by determining who is a citizen.

The request inflamed immigration and human rights advocates, who argued that immigrants already distrustful of the government would avoid filling out the census out of fear that their answers could jeopardize their status in the country. That reaction would further depress response rates, forcing the Census Bureau to spend more money on follow-up and imperiling the accuracy of the count. The move also drew opposition from Democratic politicians at the state and federal level, who made similar arguments about the impact on the census, which is also used for the once-in-a-decade process of drawing new districts for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Those concerns failed to dissuade the Department of Commerce’s Ross, however. Last night he issued an eight-page memo announcing his decision to add the question to the 2020 survey.

The memo makes two main points. First, it accepts DOJ’s assertion that a citizenship question is needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act. Ross says the department needs data on individual neighborhoods to ensure that minority rights are protected and that the 2020 census is the only way to gather such data.

Civil rights groups dispute that argument. They say citizenship is not needed to enforce the law and that collecting such data will actually have the opposite effect, that is, it will “undermine the law and weaken voting rights enforcement.”

In a related matter, Ross’s memo asserts that a question on citizenship has long been a fixture of the decennial census and that he is simply “reinstating” it. The facts suggest otherwise. As ScienceInsider noted in a 2 January story, the Census Bureau does have a 200-year history of asking residents about their origins. In 1820 people were asked whether they were “foreigners not naturalized.” In 1850, they were asked about their place of birth, and in 1900, a question was added on the year they entered the country.

But starting in 1950, those questions were moved to the long form of the census. That goes to one in six households, meaning that most residents were never asked about their origins or immigration status. And after the 2000 census, the long form was dropped from the decennial census and converted into the American Community Survey, a lengthy questionnaire that goes annually to about 3 million households.

Ross’s second point challenges the notion that the move would depress response rates. “[N]either the Census Bureau nor the concerned stakeholders could document that the response rate would, in fact, decline materially,” he wrote.

The absence of a permanent director and deputy director at the Census Bureau apparently forced Ross to conduct his own investigation into the impact of a citizenship question on response rates. As a result, his memo is sprinkled with anonymous comments that he attributes to previous Census officials. Their input, the memo explains, led Ross to conclude that “the need for accurate citizenship data and the limited burden that the reinstatement of the citizenship question would impose outweigh fears about a potentially lower response rate.”

Politicians were quick to react to Ross’s decision. The state of California immediately filed a suit, claiming the question violates the U.S. Constitution. Last month the state’s attorney general had joined colleagues in 18 other states in a letter to Ross urging him not to add a citizenship question.

Meanwhile, some members of Congress want to prevent future administrations from adding any questions to the census at the last minute. Last week, Representative Carolyn Maloney (NY) and a handful of other Democrats introduced a bill (H.R. 5359) that would require that any new questions be “researched, studied, and tested” for at least 3 years. It would also require the General Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog agency, to certify that such vetting had occurred before any new questions were added. Ross’s decision could enhance the prospects of such a bill, which was seen as having little chance of passage when it was introduced.