Posted by Margaret Lowry on March 30, 2018 in Blog

Monday night, Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that the decennial census would include an untested question on citizenship, ignoring the objections of career Census Bureau staff and community advocates across the country.

The inclusion of a citizenship question is a transparent political move designed to suppress the count. Including it before it has undergone the years-long testing by the Census Bureau’s seasoned demographers typical of large changes to census surveys, marks a deep departure in the standards of statistical analysis performed by the Bureau under Republican and Democratic administrations alike. What’s more, current Census Bureau employees, former Census Bureau Directors, and countless community advocates have warned that the inclusion of a citizenship category would depress response rates, particularly in immigrant communities. It’s a clear indication that the Trump Administration is continuing to approach the decennial census – and indeed the functioning of the entire Census Bureau – with a political agenda in mind.

As a refresher, the decennial census is a constitutionally mandated process, and each administration has a responsibility to make sure that the Census Bureau can conduct an accurate count of all persons – not just citizens – residing in the United States. The data we get from the decennial census is used to ensure fair political representation, allocate resources and funding, and help businesses make decisions about economic growth.

The format of the decennial census has undergone many, many changes since the first survey in 1790, but each of these has been intended to better the accuracy of the count and reflect the self-reported diversity of respondents. It’s not far-fetched to say that the decennial census survey – and our responses to it – paints one of the best, messiest, most beautiful portraits of our country’s growth as a nation of immigrants.

None of this is possible, however, without the trust of respondents in the confidentiality of their information. Infusing the census with a partisan, nativist agenda effectively terminates that trust. The citizenship question isn’t the first time the Trump Administration has played politics with the census. Let’s take a look at some of the other ways this administration has tried to undermine their constitutional responsibility:

Leadership

There have been no reports or indications that the administration has made an effort to fill the role of Director, a role that federal law states will be appointed by the President, approved by the Senate, and hold certain qualifications – namely the “demonstrated ability in managing large organizations and experience in the collection, analysis, and use of statistical data.”

While the Trump administration hasn’t fulfilled its duty in offering up a qualified candidate for the Directorship, reports did circulate about a rumored pick for Deputy Director – a position they don’t have to worry about getting Senate approval for. Their identified candidate, Thomas Brunell, also happens to be a vocal supporter for partisan gerrymandering, and advocated to stop the adoption of early voting in Ohio. Not a great sign for someone being asked to administer a survey on which equal representation depends.

Thankfully, Brunell is no longer under consideration for the post, but the message the administration sent in putting him forward is clear. For them, the census isn’t one of the pillars of our democracy – it’s a vehicle to push voter suppression efforts and put forward a partisan agenda.

Race and Ethnicity Data Collection

If you’ve been following our work at AAI, you know that in January, the Census Bureau announced that the 2020 Census would not include a combined question format for race and ethnicity or a “Middle Eastern or North African” (MENA) category. The announcement came after years-long testing by experts at the Bureau who concluded that both adjustments would be beneficial to an accurate count. In fact, the Census Bureau even recommended the changes in its report to the Office and Management and Budget (OMB) who had the final call. The problem, is that the OMB never made one. Despite signaling to community advocates and stakeholder groups, AAI included, from the Census Bureau that the combined question and MENA category would be implemented – the OMB instead chose to ignore meticulously researched findings, effectively rejecting them.

The failure of the OMB to release guidance allowing for implementation wasn’t an oversight. The changes in the question format would most positively affect response rates for Hispanic communities and, obviously, those of Middle Eastern and North African origin - two groups that, through travel bans, immigration raids, and border walls, this administration has made clear are its targets. By suppressing efforts to better data collection on these communities, the administration chose to buckle down on its anti-immigrant policies instead of supporting data that represents the full diversity of our country.

Funding

Counting every single person in the United States is expensive and counting them accurately even more so. But remember, without an accurate count you can’t have an accurately representative democracy. It’s worth the cost. Unfortunately, the Census Bureau and the 2020 decennial census efforts have been consistently underfunded by the Trump administration, with some experts estimating that the 2018 budget to be underfunded by $160 million, and 2019 by $400 million.      

Already, the Census Bureau has had to make a few desperate choices in order to make sure it can move forward with its current funding. The 2018 End-to-End Test – known as the “dress rehearsal” for the decennial – was scheduled to go out in West Virginia, Washington, and Rhode Island. Because of budget shortcomings, the program was cut to one location – with residents of Providence, RI receiving their first mailings earlier this month. The cuts to field testing comes at a time when the Census Bureau is about to launch a new design including digital response – which could save taxpayers over $5 billion.

Not investing in these new operational methods will cost Americans over time, in dollars and in inaccuracy, showing that this administration has no interest pursuing a fair count.

In the end, there’s too much at stake to let politics get in the way of an accurate count. We only have one chance every 10 years to get a complete picture of our country. Depressing responses, throwing away research and expert advice, and limiting funding doesn’t just hurt distribution of funding or the ability of researchers to pull data, it hurts the integrity of our democracy.