On our monthly open data calls, we have provided updates on data in the news and the biggest newsmaker by far has been Census 2020. Besides the challenges the Census Bureau has faced in maintaining their federal funding and finding new leadership, a recent hiccup has put the accuracy of the Census 2020 count in jeopardy.

Several months ago, the Justice department made a request that a question on citizenship be included in the Census 2020 count. Advocates raised concerns immediately about the possibility that a question on citizenship could impact whether people respond to the Census survey, but on Monday that question was approved for inclusion in the upcoming count by Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross.

The Justice department argues that the citizenship question would allow the agency to better enforce Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which bars the dilution of minority voting power through redistricting. The letter states, “to fully enforce those requirements, the department needs a reliable calculation of the citizen voting-age population in localities where voting rights violation are alleged or suspected.” However, these data are collected every year in the American Community Survey. The last time the immigration question was asked in a decennial census was in 1950.

Advocates are rightly concerned about the impact on the count that a citizenship question could exert.  In a November presentation by the Census Bureau, an official cited numerous examples of respondents expressing concern about the confidentiality of the data related to immigration. The question on citizenship will not be field tested which means there is no way to know in advance whether people will choose not respond. The Census Bureau has been finalizing and field testing questions for over a year and the only end-to-end field test is already underway in Rhode Island. Not knowing whether the citizenship question will impact response rates has two important consequences: the non-response follow-up and the undercount.

The most costly piece of the Census work is in non-response follow-up work–this is the work that Census field employees do when they go out to meet with residents and work with them to complete their census surveys. The Census budget is insufficient to conduct the next decennial census count, especially the hard to count areas of the country, and the more non-response follow-up work that is required in 2020 will eat away at the Bureau’s budget, threatening other programs like the valuable American Community Survey.

The undercount has serious consequences for our country. Our immigrant residents are concentrated in major metropolitan areas–these areas are typically dependent on the federal government for crucial funding for health and human services. A question about citizenship in the current political climate could be seen as a threat in many communities and if they choose not to respond to the survey, we could see an undercount. The decennial census population counts are used to determine legislative redistricting as well as federal funding for health and human services programs, and thus will remain in tact for ten years.

On Monday night, California filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block the question. Close to a dozen states have indicated that they will follow suit.

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