Every person should count — and be counted.


July 27, 2018

This week, 131 groups, including the Coalition on Human Needs, joined two lawsuits aimed at preventing the U.S. Commerce Department from including a citizenship question in the 2020 Census.
The moves come as CHN, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and a broad host of other grassroots, advocacy, labor, legal services and other organizations are urging members of the public to submit comments in opposition to the citizenship question. The deadline for submitting comments is Tuesday, Aug. 7.

In filing friend-of-the-court briefs in two separate U.S. District Courts in California (here and here), the groups wrote:

“Given its foundational importance to American government and society, the census must be above partisan politics. The misguided decision to reverse seventy years of consistent census practice and insert an untested citizenship question undermines the integrity of the count, damages our communities, and violates the Census Bureau’s constitutional and statutory duties to conduct a full enumeration of the U.S. population.”

The Trump Administration is seeking to have the lawsuits dismissed, arguing in part that plaintiffs are relying on a “speculative chain of inferences” to support the lawsuits’ claim that adding the citizenship question would result in an “undercount” of people. The government argues that the Department of Commerce has procedures in place to count every person in the United States.

Experts disagree. “I think it will have the effect of suppressing the count and it will lead people to try to stay out of the Census rather than get in it,” said Steve Murdock, a Rice University sociologist and demographer and Census Bureau director from 2007 to 2009, under President George W. Bush.

So this raises a question: If the Trump Administration is truly interested in counting every person, then why include a controversial question that experts say would certainly depress response rates?

The Washington Post, in an unsigned editorial, suggests one answer:

“The real answer is probably that seemingly small changes to the census form can have massive effects on government spending and congressional representation. A lot of federal funding is distributed based on states’ total population. So are congressional seats. Adding a citizenship question on a form sent by an administration explicitly hostile to migrants is highly likely to depress response rates among immigrants, even those who have naturalized. This would make urban centers in blue states look less populous and, therefore, less deserving of money and representation.”

Fortunately for advocates for a fair Census, the Trump Administration may lose its fight to include a citizenship question in part due to its own incompetence.

A federal judge in New York, in a third legal challenge to the citizenship question, cited the Trump Administration’s own records in refusing the Department of Commerce’s request that the lawsuit be dismissed. (This lawsuit was brought by about two dozen states and cities, as well as a coalition of immigrant advocates.)

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman ruled in early July and again on Thursday, July 26 that challengers to the citizenship question have presented enough evidence for the litigation to proceed.

In his first ruling, Furman noted a strong appearance of “bad faith” and said the Trump’s Administration’s rationale for adding the citizenship question appears to be nothing more than pretext. And in his second ruling, he found that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has presented contradictory claims about who initially requested that the citizenship question be included in the 2020 Census and why. As the Huffington Post reported:

Furman also questioned the Commerce Department’s rationale for adding the citizenship question. Ross initially said that he began considering adding a citizenship question after the Justice Department requested it so it could better enforce the Voting Rights Act. But in a memo disclosed as part of the lawsuit, Ross said he actually began considering the possibility of adding a question months before the Justice Department’s request. Ross also disclosed it was the Commerce Department that asked DOJ to request a citizenship question. Documents made public this week show Ross was impatient to get a citizenship question on the census soon after he was confirmed and how a top Commerce Department official approached DOJ to get the agency to request adding the question.

“While Secretary Ross initially (and repeatedly) suggested that the Department of Justice’s request triggered his consideration of the issue, it now appears that the sequence of events was exactly opposite,” he wrote.

Furman also noted that the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 and the Justice Department has never said it needed better citizenship data to enforce the law.

It should be noted that the Trump Administration’s desire to include a citizenship question and depress responses to the Census, particularly among immigrants, people of color, low-income people and families with children, is not an isolated incident these days. As Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman writes:

“A citizenship question — which hasn’t been part of the decennial census for 70 years — is all but guaranteed to make people even more reluctant to answer the questions. That’s particularly true in the environment of fear that President Trump has created for all immigrants, both documented and undocumented, and indeed for all racial, religious and ethnic minorities.

“That is, of course, the whole point. When communities with lots of immigrants and minorities are undercounted, that means fewer federal dollars will flow to them and they will be underrepresented in the redistricting that occurs after the census. The addition of the citizenship question is one more part of a broader Republican vote suppression effort that includes aggressive gerrymandering, voter ID laws, voter purges and restriction of early voting.”

A citizenship question would be incredibly damaging toward efforts to ensure a full and fair count. But it is by no means the only threat to a comprehensive and accurate 2020 Census. CHN is deeply concerned that children – particularly children in people of color and low-income families – are likely to be undercounted.

About 1.3 million children through age 17 were missed in the 2010 Census, according to William O’Hare, a Census expert who documented the shortfall in his book The Undercount of Young Children in the U.S. Decennial Census. That is estimated at 1.7 percent of all children. The youngest children are far more likely to be missed:  4.6 percent of 0-4 year olds in 2010. It’s even worse for the youngest Hispanic and African American children (7.5 percent and 6.3 percent missed, respectively). These children are disproportionately low-income, and that means they’re more likely to move frequently, or be in complex households in which adults may not be clear on who to include on their census form, or in families where little English is spoken, all of which can contribute to lower Census participation.

An undercount is even more likely in 2020 because the first round of responses will for the first time be via the internet. Only 78 percent of households with incomes below $30,000 used the internet, according to a report by a Census advisory group in 2016. Unsurprisingly, many more higher-income households used the internet. The Census is supposed to follow up with every household if they do not respond at first, but it is expensive to do so. If funding is inadequate, the likelihood of an undercount grows. And of course, all of this is made far worse if the Census Bureau is not deterred from including the question on citizenship.

It’s important for large numbers of people to comment, to establish a public record calling for the Administration to take steps to minimize the undercount by eliminating the citizenship question, redoubling outreach efforts to maximize an accurate count of all children, and seeking the funding needed to ensure accuracy. If the Administration’s real agenda is to make sure that low-income people, communities of color and immigrants are under-represented in Congress and get less than their share of funding for programs like Medicaid, child care, and child welfare services, they may not respond to the comments. But judges will pay close attention. So please give them something more to look at.


Citizenship question