Think of the U.S. Census Bureau as the nosiest of neighbors. When the 2020 forms arrive in mailboxes across the country, the questions will include the usual — the names and ages of all those living at a particular residence.
But the questions don’t stop there. The census will also ask about sex, race, ancestry, ethnicity, disabilities, income levels and educational attainment. Then it will go on and ask how your home was heated last winter. It will ask how many computers and internet-ready devices are used in your home. It will ask whether grandparents are taking care of their grandchildren. It will ask what languages are spoken in your home. It will even want specific details about your plumbing.
What was still unclear until late last week was whether the Census would ask a much more basic—and important—question: Whether you’re a citizen of the United States.
After previously saying it would consider issuing an executive order to include the question, the Trump administration said Thursday it was giving up that fight but would seek to obtain citizenship data through other means. All of this came after the U.S. Supreme Court said the administration’s explanation for the question wasn’t adequate, and sent the question back for further explanation.
It’s important to note that the court did not say the question shouldn’t be asked. The court merely said the case for the question must be made clearly and convincingly.
As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, the administration must offer “genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public.”
That’s fair. And such a case can be made for the citizenship question, which has been asked on the U.S. Census since as far back as 1820. It was asked again in 1830, 1870, and 1890 through 1950. It’s important data. The information is used as the federal government allocates about $900 billion in funds each year. But those funds aren’t allocated indiscriminately to citizens and non-citizens alike. Highway funding may not be affected by citizenship status, for example, but Medicaid funding is.
Claims that the citizenship question would result in a significant undercount (particularly of Hispanics) are based on a Harvard study that was published in March. The study finds “that asking about citizenship status significantly increases the percent of questions skipped, with particularly strong effects among Hispanics, and makes respondents less likely to report having members of their household who are of Hispanic ethnicity.” That’s presumably based on fears that persons without legal status would not answer the question or respond to the Census altogether.
But there are ways to address those fears. The U.S. Census is a massive undertaking; next year we will be bombarded with advertising and marketing efforts; the campaign will spend an estimated $500 million. It would be simple to reiterate that Census data will be secure, and won’t be shared with immigration officials.
The origin of the word census derives from the Latin word censere, which applied to the registration of citizens in ancient Rome. This process is the constitutionally mandated way to paint an accurate picture of what America looks like today. How many citizens we have and where they reside is an important detail to include.