Questioning Citizenship and the Undermining of the US Census
October 3, 2018
On September 21, a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to make its main official behind the 2020 census citizenship question — Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — available to testify out of court for the lawsuits over the hotly contested question. More than two dozen cities and states have filed lawsuits to try to remove the question. The Gender Policy Report sat down with demographer Sara Curran to get some background on the Census and the inclusion of an immigration question in 2020.
Debra Fitzpatrick: Welcome to a Gender Policy Report interview featuring Sara Curran. Sara Curran researches migration, globalization, gender, climate change, and adaptation and development. And she’s here with us today to discuss the 2020 census and the citizenship questions. So, Sarah, maybe you can start by just telling our audience a little bit about the basics of the census, and some specifics about how and why a citizenship question has been added.
Sara Curran: Okay. The U.S. constitution requires that we have a full enumeration of the U.S. population, and that’s really quite a profound statement for the founders of the country to have said that they needed to know who was where in order to best assess the needs for particular kinds of political representation in the country. And, we have consistently implemented a census. So, the census has had various questions over its history. Typically, it has, over-time, grown in length in the number of questions and it has shrunk in the number of questions. Most recently, it used to be that the census was collected by individuals going around and delivering the census; census data collectors, enumerators. In more recent years, certainly in the second half of the 20th century, we’ve really been asked to fill out the census forms ourselves as opposed to having an enumerator come to our house. And because of that, the census questionnaire has gotten shorter, in terms of the number of questions in order to make sure we could get enough people to respond and not make it too difficult with too many complicated questions. So, that’s the basics.
It’s done every ten years, it takes a fair amount of effort. There’s an entire government agency to collect those data, the U.S. Census Bureau, and they spend many years within the decade, both finishing up and cleaning the data and getting it ready for use by legislatures and states and officials across the country, and then they have to start preparing for the next round. So, we are less than two years away from the launch of the 2020 census and the Trump Administration decided to, Secretary Ross of the Department of Commerce, decided that we really needed to have a question about U.S. citizenship added to the census. He made that declaration in early 2018. Which was very late in the process. So, we already had a set of questions, we already had a set of processes underway for the U.S. census, we have to do a lot of pretesting with all of our methods for collecting data in the U.S. census, and this edition came at the eleventh hour, right before they were finalizing and closing any new changes to the census.
Deb: So, what are the expected consequences are in terms of census participation and accuracy of adding this particular set of questions?
Sara: Well, there’s a fair amount of concern about this subject. So first of all, maybe I’ll back up and say that we do collect, the U.S. Census Bureau also has another way in which they collect data on an annual basis called the American Community Survey. And on that survey, they collect citizenship information on a sample of the U.S. population and those data are used to inform all sorts of questions around voting rights which was the purported reason why Secretary Ross wanted to add the question to the U.S. Census this round. Because we have been collecting citizenship questions and data on these other forms, we do know something about the extent to which response rates vary using the American Community Survey information, we know that we actually get reduced response rates when people who are of different kinds of statuses in the United States, by race, in particular by ethnicity, we get a reduced response rate because of the question of the census. That is, the citizenship question. So, there’s a fairly strong, even if somebody is a citizen but they recognize that citizenship question as a threatening kind of question of their legitimacy as a resident of the United States.
Deb: Can you say a little bit then about how having this accurate census data impacts efforts at various levels to understand and address gender disparities? And when we talk about gender, we’re really looking at that intersectionally, as gender intersects with race, ethnicity, in this case immigration status.
Sara: The census provides us with the best denominator for any kind of estimation of knowing exactly who is included in your base population and because it’s a full enumeration, we really can get a lot of detailed information that we otherwise have a very hard time getting from marginalized populations or somewhat more hidden populations. So, whether that is sexuality or whether that’s about ethnicity and being a woman, we get enough information from the census because it’s such a large count of the population. We can learn a lot about the needs of our country just based on a little bit of information from a person, but collectively we learn a lot more than we would from a random sample approach to collecting data.
Deb: How do you use census data or how do researchers like you use census data? What kinds of questions can we answer when we have this improved baseline sense of who resides in the United States?
Sara: What we know is what do you identify with as your ethnicity and your race. We know your age and we know who you’re living with, and we know where you’re living. And those kind of basic, fundamental pieces can tell us a lot, if we’re trying to get a sense of residential segregation, or if we’re trying to get a sense of social service needs, schools, or government resource allocations. One of the ways in which I am interested in these data and using these data, and particularly these rich data is when we have natural disasters, or when we have, particularly related to climate change and climate disasters, we need to know where people live exactly, how old they are, how vulnerable they might be, and just that kind of basic information about whether you are living alone, do you live with a family, do you have very elderly people; all of that gives you a tremendous amount of information that you can use for planning purposes and policy purposes and preparing for the possibility of disaster and finding potentially vulnerable populations.
The census data, because they’re so complete, they are useful for checking the quality of the representation of other samples and surveys. So if we know already a general baseline distribution of men, women, a particular age group, etc., we can double check to make sure that the distribution that we have in our sample is actually the distribution that we would have expected given what we know from the census. Please know that we don’t use the census lists to draw our samples, but we do use the counts to help us know whether our survey samples are representative. So, it’s a very important validation of the quality of a sample survey. So, that’s just one piece. The other piece is that the census guides the distribution of federal dollars based on an accurate count. So, this is absolutely essential. And if there’s any doubt to the extent to which the census is inaccurate, one can imagine that this will lead to legal battles for many years. So, undermining the integrity of the census by adding a question like this that might actually diminish our ability to count people and open a pandora’s box of policy challenges and through many programs – whether those of local governments, the private sector or the federal government into some disarray. It’s a potentially dangerous path to go down.