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Census Citizenship Question Sparks Concern Among Some Social Scientists

Some prominent social scientists are sharing concerns about the Trump administration’s intention to include a question about citizenship in the 2020 national census, adding their voices to opposition expressed by some lawmakers and immigration-rights groups.

Accurate census data is important in numerous ways, including how financial resources are distributed. It informs social science research and impacts decisions about education, transportation, public health and safety and citizen representation through allocation of Congressional seats.

Dr. Alondra NelsonDr. Alondra Nelson

Some observers contend that a question about citizenship is likely to cause legal and illegal immigrants to not respond and, as a result, be undercounted. If responses are suppressed or affected due to an untested question or questions, there could be far-reaching implications, critics of the question suggest.

“We have for this particular census a political climate, a political discourse that’s been created that sort of suggests that there are levels of inclusion in our society,” said Dr. Alondra Nelson, professor of sociology at Columbia University and president of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). “You have the general principles of the problems of getting people to trust and commit to doing any kind of survey participation. Then you have the sort of heightened — almost a fever pitch sometimes — issue of there being certain groups who would be apprehensive about participating in something that asks about their citizenship, given the contemporary political context.”

Added Nelson: “The concern here is that we won’t get the data that we need. I think anybody of immigrant status should and would worry about being included in this question and the implications of answering it.”

On its website, the Census Bureau explains why it asks questions about citizenship. It reads, in part:

We ask questions about a person’s place of birth, citizenship, and year of entry into the United States to create data about citizens, noncitizens, and the foreign-born population.

Agencies and policymakers use our published statistics to set and evaluate immigration policies and laws, understand the experience of different immigrant groups, and enforce laws, policies, and regulations against discrimination based on national origin. These statistics also help tailor services to accommodate cultural differences.

Julia Milton, assistant director for public affairs for the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA), said the process by which the citizenship question is being added to the census is as concerning as the implications of the question. Standard practice is that questions are vetted in detail before being included, she said.

The Census Bureau spends the years between decennial  censuses engaging in rigorous research and testing on any possible changes.

“They can evaluate whether or not a change is going to impact the quality of the responses received, whether or not people are answering honestly or whether they’re less likely to respond to a certain question or certain phrasing,” said Milton.

The 2018 End-to-End Census Test currently being conducted does not include a citizenship question. Therefore, some conclude, a citizenship question on the 2020 census would appear without research or testing.

“We don’t know what the impacts are. There is no way for us to know until census day,” said Milton.

Best practices for the census include careful, thoughtful examination followed by testing. Nelson said phrasing could impact how people answer other questions on the survey.

“We haven’t done any of the best practices of social science research, for certain, and even…the Census Bureau’s own idea of what their best practices are,” said Nelson. “I want the Census Bureau to live up to its own standards of research and testing. We also want the census to be depoliticized.”

Dr. Kenneth Prewitt, Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs and Special Advisor to the President at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs, and former director of the United States Census Bureau, said hig- quality citizenship information is already available from the American Community Survey. An ongoing survey by the Census Bureau, the information collected has been used for more than 50 years to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

“The argument that block level data, which is what you get on the half-dozen questions on the decennial form, would improve on that is spurious,” said Prewitt. He added that in his view, the citizenship question will depress cooperation in the 2020 census and increase costs as the Census Bureau tries to compensate with more advertising and promotion as well as efforts to track down non-responsive households.

The data of the census has been valuable to social scientists because to the best of the Census Bureau’s ability, everyone is counted, which provides accurate data.

“Our social analysis and our cultural analysis as researchers are only as good as the information we have about the society that we’re studying,” said Nelson. “The concern is really about the inaccuracies within the census that might arise because we’re not getting the full picture. That would have an impact on all sorts of social services and various sectors of our society.”

Nelson said the implications for education could be profound.

“There’s potentially a kind of ripple effect that impacts academics and researchers, but impacts more profoundly us as members of a national community,” she said.

SSRC noted that members of Congress who are concerned about the citizenship question are putting forth legislation to bar its inclusion in the 2020 census. COSSA encouraged Congress to exercise its oversight authority to safeguard the integrity of census data.

At the very least, the citizenship question should be tested, Nelson said. “We should think of the larger purpose and mandate of the census relative to counting everybody.”

Prewitt noted that “every reliable sample survey in the country — government and private sector — is calibrated to the census count. Any population groups undercounted in the 2020 census will be correspondingly undercounted in all other surveys for a decade. This compromises all research on the American public.”

Some proponents of including a citizenship question argue that, like questions about race and gender, it is neither illegal nor unconstitutional. They also note that the 2020 census would not be the first time a citizenship question is asked.

A question about citizenship was asked in 1820, 1830 and in each decennial census from 1890 through 1950. It was omitted in 1960 for everybody except residents of Puerto Rico and New York.

In subsequent counts from 1970 through 2000, the Census Bureau used two questionnaires: a long form, which went to less than 20 percent of households and asked about citizenship, and a short form, which went to more than 80 percent of households and did not ask a citizenship question. The long form was dropped after 2000 and only the short form – the one without the citizenship question – was used in 2010.

However, after 2000, the census had not stopped asking about citizenship. By 2010, the bureau was using the American Community Survey every year to collect most of the same data sought in the long form, including citizenship. But the survey is administered to only about 2.6 percent of the U.S. population, or about 3.5 million households.

The Trump administration’s announcement in March that it plans to add a citizenship question to the short form that will be mailed to every U.S. household in 2020 marks the first time since 1950 that everyone will be asked about their citizenship status.

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