Commerce Secretary adds citizenship question to 2020 Census, jeopardizing accuracy amidst other challenges

Written by: Sarah Hughes
Date Posted: April 6, 2018

We were disappointed to learn last week that U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross ignored the advice of experts and bowed to political pressure to add an untested question about citizenship to the 2020 Census. For the first time in 70 years, the Census questionnaire that goes to every household in the United States will ask respondents to answer a question about the citizenship status of each household resident. The decennial Census has not included a citizenship question since 1950, and citizenship data are already available through the American Community Survey, which goes to a sample of American households each year.

The Children’s Campaign and other advocates for accurate and reliable data are highly concerned that adding a citizenship question to the decennial Census could dramatically depress response rates among immigrant households, particularly in light of an already fearful climate within immigrant communities. Even prior to the addition of the citizenship question, Census Bureau researchers were concerned about response rates among immigrant households after noticing an uptick in concerns about confidentiality and reluctance to participate in surveys. Lower response rates threaten the accuracy of the Census and would have far-reaching effects for Colorado’s kids and families.

The Census is a fundamental data source that is used to draw legislative districts and ensure a fair and accurate distribution of political power. It also influences an estimated public investment of $600 billion in federal assistance to states and communities to improve the lives of children. Programs and funding sources including the Child Care and Development Block Grant, Head Start, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) all rely on data drawn from the Census in order to allocate critical resources to states. Lower response rates would equate to less funding for the programs that help Colorado’s kids and families thrive.

Prior to the Commerce Secretary’s announcement, six former Census directors from Republican and Democratic administrations wrote a joint letter strongly urging Secretary Ross not to add an untested question on citizenship status at this point in the process, emphasizing that adding the question would put the accuracy of the Census at “grave risk.” And earlier this week, 17 states and seven cities filed a lawsuit in response to the decision, arguing that the addition of a citizenship question would depress response rates and violate the Constitution’s requirement that the Census count every resident of the U.S. Colorado is not among the states that sued.

The addition of a citizenship question comes as the Census Bureau faces other challenges to ensuring an accurate 2020 Census count. Congress has significantly underfunded the Census Bureau in the critical years leading up to the count, forcing the Bureau to eliminate several important field tests. The tests that were eliminated included those designed to improve responses in hard-to-count areas. Limited funding also threatens the Census Bureau’s work on an issue important to child advocates: the significant undercount of young children in the Census. Children under 5 are more likely than any other age group to be missed in the Census; the 2010 Census missed one million young children.

The Census has been conducted every 10 years since 1790 and is a foundational part of our democracy. It captures a valuable portrait of our changing demographics, informing our understanding of the identities and needs of the youngest Coloradans. Kids and families across the country and here in Colorado are counting on a fair and accurate 2020 Census. Click here to read a First Focus blog post on why the Census matters to kids, and stay tuned in the months ahead to learn more about how you can ensure that every child counts in the 2020 Census.

Sarah Hughes

About Sarah Hughes

Sarah Hughes is Vice President of Research Initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign. In this role, she leads the organization’s research and data analysis efforts, including the development and publication of the annual KIDS COUNT in Colorado! report, and provides research and data support to inform and advance the Children’s Campaign’s policy agenda. She also co-chairs the organization’s internal Equity Team. Prior to joining the Children’s Campaign, Sarah worked in communications and spent several years working and volunteering with kids in various capacities. She holds a Master of Social Work with a specialization in Advocacy, Leadership and Social Change from the University of Illinois and a B.S. in Business and Political Science from Washington University in St. Louis. She lives in Denver with her husband and their two crazy dogs.