On March 26, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross directed the Census Bureau to include a question about respondents’ citizenship in the 2020 Decennial Census. The decision was made in response to a request by the Department of Justice to add the question in order to support its enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, although it is unclear why current data is inadequate. Citizenship was last asked as part of the decennial census in 1950; since then it has been included on the census “long form,” which later became the American Community Survey (these differ from the decennial census in that they are sent to a sample of the U.S. population, not every household). In a memo outlining his decision, Ross stipulated that the question be asked last on the Census form. While the decision was reportedly made over the objections of the experts at the Census Bureau, the citizenship question was on the list of planned questions submitted to Congress on March 29.
The decision has raised concerns for those in the scientific community because the question was not part of the extensive research and testing the Census Bureau routinely conducts in the years leading up to a decennial census. The Bureau carefully evaluates all proposed changes to design and wording of the census to ensure that they do not affect the quality of the responses received. Asking about citizenship could alienate respondents in the immigrant community and potentially deter them from responding to the Census at all or answering inaccurately, resulting in an undercount of these populations and affecting the accuracy and integrity of the Census data. The Bureau is currently conducting the last major test of the 2020 Census operation, the 2018 End-to-End Test in Providence, RI, which is being administered without a citizenship question. Because the Bureau will not have been able to evaluate the impact of the question, we will not know how the question will affect responses until the 2020 Census is in the field. Given that the Census Bureau has a Constitutional obligation to count every member of the U.S. population, an increase in non-response would greatly increase the costs of the count, as more enumerators would need be sent to collect responses in person, at far greater expense than planned mail or internet outreach.
The decennial census is an irreplaceable source of data for researchers across the social sciences who use it to generate valuable findings about the U.S. population that can be used to inform evidence-based policies. In addition, information from the decennial census undergirds numerous other surveys and data sets at the Census Bureau and beyond, so a problem at the source would have far-reaching implications across the statistical system. COSSA strongly opposes the Department of Commerce’s decision and released a statement to that effect on March 27. In addition, COSSA issued an action alert to enable COSSA members to easily write to their Members of Congress and ask them to support legislation to remove the question. In addition, other COSSA members, including the American Statistical Association, Population Association of America, and the Social Science Research Council have released statements criticizing the decision.
At this stage, the only avenues to removing the question are legislation or a court ruling. Two bills (H.R. 5359 and S. 2580) have been introduced by Democrats in Congress that would bar the Census from asking about citizenship, but neither has bipartisan support, making passage unlikely. In addition, more than one law suit has been filed against the Administration, arguing that asking about citizenship is an attempt to depress the count of minority populations.