What a Citizenship Question on the Census Would Mean for Cities

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There is no question that America’s city leaders share Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s commitment to a full and fair 2020 Census. Census data is vital to cities for uses including regional planning, economic research, public health initiatives, and allocating more than $600 billion in federal funding to state and local governments.

But because city leaders understand the importance of an accurate count, they also recognize that the upcoming 2020 Census faces unique challenges — and that the stakes are high.

For starters, Congress has required the Census Bureau to spend no more on the 2020 Census than it did on the 2010 Census. Facing this challenge, the Bureau is attempting to adapt through a greater reliance on technology and state and local assistance. Even under these intense budget constraints, however, we have yet to see the increase to census funding that typically arrives two years out from a decennial census — stoking concerns about underfunding.

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Still the Bureau has managed to extensively prepare for these cost saving changes. In addition, each question on the form and change made to the process has undergone extensive testing to mitigate any effects on the rate of census self-response. Non-response follow up work (NRFU), which includes the Bureau’s efforts to collect responses from residents who do not provide them voluntarily, accounts for the most costly census operation. As a result of this fact and the pressures the Bureau is facing, it cannot afford to risk inflating the need for NRFU in 2020.

Late in December, the Department of Justice (DOJ) sent a request to have a last minute question, on citizenship, added to the 2020 Census. DOJ argued that the additional data was necessary for executing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Census Bureau must submit the proposed questions for congressional review by March 31 of this year. The one and only end-to-end census test begins in Providence County, Rhode Island, next month, and will not include such a question. Given this timeframe, there is no conceivable way in which this addition could be vetted with the thoroughness demanded of such an important consideration.

Even more alarming is that there is tremendous bipartisan agreement that the addition of an intrusive and untested citizenship question this late in the game would lower self-response rates among both noncitizens AND citizens. Four previous Census Bureau directors, who have served under both Republican and Democratic administrations, have expressed their concerns that such an addition would ultimately lead to worse data.

Finally, since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the DOJ has relied exclusively on citizenship data collected through robust but much smaller surveys — most recently the American Community Survey (ACS). For the past 53 years, the DOJ has reliably used data from other Census Bureau surveys to fully enforce the Voting Rights Act, leading us to seriously question the necessity for drastic changes made to the only constitutionally-mandated count of the nation’s population.

An accurate count is of the utmost importance to city governments when it comes to planning, research, federal funding and so much more. Last week, NLC sent a letter to Secretary Ross, who has ultimate say in whether or not the question is added, asking him to reject a proposal to add any untested questions to the census. Over the next two years, NLC will continue to work with the Bureau and the Department of Commerce to ensure the 24th Decennial Census is a yet another success.

brian-headshot About the author: Brian Egan is NLC’s Principal Associate for Finance, Administration and Intergovernmental Relations. Follow him on Twitter @BeegleME.