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Policy Letter

Census Should Remove Citizenship Question from 2020 Survey

Department of Commerce
United States Census Bureau
Attention: Ms. Jennifer Jessup
Departmental Paperwork Clearance Officer
Room 6616
14th and Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20230

Submitted to:

Subject: Comments on Proposed Information Collection on 2020 Census, Docket No. USBC-2018-0005

Dear Ms. Jessup:

The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) provides the following public comment about 2020 Census proposed information collection USBC-2018-0005 published on June 8, 2018.1 As an independent nonprofit organization committed to achieving a more effective, ethical, and accountable federal government, POGO has an interest in ensuring the proper implementation of decennial census, which the United States relies on to apportion seats in Congress and allocate billions of dollars in federal funds. POGO urges Department of Commerce to remove the citizenship question from the 2020 Census as it will unnecessarily jeopardize the accuracy of the survey.

First, the importance of the accuracy of the decennial census cannot be overstated. The data collected through this constitutionally required survey directly shapes our democracy and the balance of power as we use it to determine the number of representatives each state sends to Congress. After each decennial census, some states gain Congressional seats and others lose seats to adjust for changes in population distribution. These changes ensure that there is fair and equitable representation for everyone. An inaccurate 2020 census could mean that people in some states will be underrepresented in the federal government for the next decade.

In addition to political power, the census data shapes how we spend money—a lot of it. Census information helps direct more than $800 billion in government spending every year.2 The population data helps determine where to locate schools, hospitals, police units, and other local services; where new roads need to be built; where companies should expand to and hire more people; where developers should build new shopping centers; and so much more. The decennial census is used in conjunction with other information to allocate money and resources accordingly. If we get the count wrong, then we will be giving some states and localities too little money while others get more than they need. Considering we will rely on this information for a decade, the numbers will impact trillions of dollars in government spending and an enormous number of policy decisions.

On March 26, Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that an untested question about citizenship would be included in the 2020 census.3 The question has not been included in the decennial census since 1950 but the Department of Justice requested in January that the question be added, claiming that it was to help them enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Citizenship status may seem like a simple question, but in the context of the larger ongoing immigration debate, it could be more ominous to some communities. President Trump has made increased immigration enforcement and deportation activities a cornerstone of his first term. That creates heightened fears among immigrant communities that any information provided to the federal government will be used to target them.

According to the Census Bureau’s own research, there has been an “unprecedented ground swell in confidentiality and data-sharing concerns among immigrants or those who live with immigrants.”4 As one interviewee said, “The possibility that the Census could give my information to internal security and immigration could come and arrest me for not having documents terrifies me.”

No one knows exactly how the question will affect the census. It is untested, so the specific impact on responses is impossible to accurately project. Though largely unnoticed by the public, the Census Bureau conducts extensive research and testing over the course of years to design the census questions. The purpose of the testing is to ensure as full and accurate participation as possible. Question wording, order, format, and instructions are tested so the Bureau fully understands the impact of any changes. The 2018 Census Bureau’s field test of the 2020 census in Providence County, Rhode Island, did not include the citizenship question. The failure to follow the standard testing practices is alone sufficient grounds to withhold a question from inclusion in the decennial census.

Census experts with experience across multiple administrations have been unanimous in their analysis that including the question will place the accuracy of the census at risk and make the survey cost more.

For instance, two former Department of Commerce Secretaries who oversaw the census—Carlos Gutierrez, a Republican, and Penny Pritzker, a Democrat—wrote, “this question will put in jeopardy the accuracy of the data that the census collects, and increase costs.”5 They noted that the Bureau typically uses a multi-year process to test new questions and concluded that “questions should be added only after the Census Bureau has adequately tested the potential effect of the question on response and accuracy rates.” They agree that this was not done in this case, and that it put the accuracy of the census and the reputation of the Census Bureau in jeopardy.

All six living former directors of the Census Bureau agreed with the former Commerce Secretaries. In a January letter to Secretary Ross they urged him to leave the citizenship question out of the upcoming 2020 census. The former directors, with a collective 25 years of leading the bureau under both Republican and Democratic administrations, stated plainly that “adding an untested question on citizenship…would put the accuracy of enumeration and success of the census in all communities at grave risk."6

As the former Secretaries did, the directors emphasized the importance of careful survey design and question selection by noting that “There is a great deal of evidence that even small changes in survey question order, wording, and instructions can have significant, and often unexpected consequences for the rate, quality, and truthfulness of response.”

Additionally, the Census Bureau’s Science Advisory Committee met one week after the announcement and discussed the added question in detail. The full committee offered their official opposition to the citizenship question because of concerns about the lack of adequate testing. The Committee noted that “there is a hierarchy of needs for the decennial census, with an accurate count of foremost importance,” and they felt that the addition of the untested question ran contrary to that need.7

We must also note that the need for the citizenship data remains in question. Although the Department of Justice requested that the citizenship status question be added, claiming that it needed the data to implement the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Department has been robustly enforcing the Voting Rights Act since the law was enacted more than 50 years ago—without ever getting citizenship information from the decennial census.

To enforce the Voting Rights Act, the Department of Justice has been using citizenship information from the American Community Survey, which collects information from representative samples of the population.8 No evidence has been presented that enforcement of the Voting Rights Act has been lacking or that the American Community Survey citizenship data is deficient for that purpose. Without clear reviewable data justifying the need for a citizenship question in the decennial census, we can see no real benefit to including the question.

Given the untested nature of the question and the real possibility that it will affect the critical results of the census, POGO strongly urges the Department of Commerce to remove the citizenship question from the 2020 decennial census. The Department of Justice can continue to use citizenship information collected through the American Community Survey to enforce the Voting Rights Act. If more information on citizenship is needed, an issue that should be fully studied before taking any action, new questions for the decennial census or changes to other surveys can and should go through full and proper testing before being implemented. Trillions of dollars over the next decade and Congressional representation is too much to gamble on an untested question that the most knowledgeable census experts say will compromise the validity of the census.

We appreciate your consideration and attention on this matter. If you have questions or need additional information, please contact us at 202-347-1122 or [email protected].


Sean Moulton
Senior Policy Analyst