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The Controversial Census Question

On the night of Monday, March 26th, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced they were adding a controversial question to the upcoming 2020 decennial census. This question, which hasn’t been included since the 1950 census, asks about the respondent’s citizenship status.

The Department of Commerce’s reinstatement of this question is in response to a request by the Department of Justice (DOJ). In December 2017, the DOJ asked for the addition of this question in order to “provide census block level citizenship voting age population (CVAP) data that is not currently available from government surveys.” The DOJ feels this information is necessary to better enforce the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Specifically, the DOJ believes CVAP data will help with the “enforcement of section 2 of the VRA, which protects minority voting rights.”

Congress gives the Department of Commerce control over which questions are included in the census. Secretary Ross of the Department of Commerce explained that he took a “hard look” at the DOJ’s request for the inclusion of this question. He considered many different opinions from various individuals and ultimately concluded:

“I find 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.”

Many criticize the inclusion of this question on the basis that immigrants in the United States may not feel comfortable revealing their citizenship status and may instead decide to not fill out the census at all. This is problematic as the point of the census is to count each resident of this country, not each citizen. Having a potentially large portion of the population excluded from the census count could have wide-ranging effects.

The census bureau states that “federal funds, grants and support to states, counties and communities are based on population totals and breakdowns by sex, age, race and other factors.”

If population sizes are undercounted, communities may be underserved. Federal funding will be based on faulty, lowered numbers, and this money might be inadequate or not go where it is truly needed. This could harm both citizens and non-citizens alike, as they are often both the beneficiaries of federal funding. The census bureau acknowledges this by explaining that one’s “community benefits the most when the census counts everyone.”

Another concern with an unrepresentative census is the use of these numbers to determine the number of seats in the United States House of Representatives each state will have for the next ten years. If large numbers of the population choose not to fill out the census out of fear, certain states, mainly democrat-controlled states, may lose seats. Before the addition of the citizenship question was announced, Pennsylvania was already projected to drop from 18 to 17 seats following the 2020 census count.

On March 20th, Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY) introduced the 2020 Census Improving Data and Enhanced Accuracy (IDEA) Act in anticipation of the addition of the citizenship census question. If passed, this act will ensure “that topics and questions included in the census are properly vetted and not added at the last minute.” Minority Leader of of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), voiced her support by urging Congress to “immediately” pass this act.

Following the announcement of the inclusion of this question in the census, California has filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration, and the state of New York is arranging a multi-state lawsuit with ten other states including Pennsylvania indicating they will join. These lawsuits allege it is unconstitutional to include a question about citizenship since the constitutional role of the census is to gather an as accurate as possible count of the population, and including the citizenship question will clearly lead to an inaccurate count.

The final list of questions for the 2020 census must be officially submitted by March 31st, 2018. Lawmakers have a few more days to attempt to block this addition, however if they are unsuccessful in passing an act to this effect, the states’ lawsuits may still be able to remove this question from the official census questions in 2020.

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