Challenge #3: Controversy of the Citizenship Question

In March 2018, Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, instructed the U.S. Census Bureau to include a question on citizenship in the 2020 census.  The decision has generated much attention and controversy, particularly among scholars and civil rights groups who argue that asking about citizenship will decrease census response rates, particularly among Hispanic/Latino populations, and more broadly threaten a fair and accurate census. 


Why is the decision to ask individuals about their citizenship status controversial?


1.     Undercount.  Certain hard-to-count populations, including children, rural residents, individuals of color, immigrants, and the homeless are already undercounted in the census.  Experts, including the Census Scientific Advisory Committee and others, point to data showing that the citizenship question will increase the undercount among immigrant and minority groups.  Also, lower response rates mean the bureau must follow up with respondents using alternative methods (e.g. phone or in-person interviews), which are more expensive.  Experts warn that in the end, this proposal would increase overall costs of administering the census.


2.     Data Accuracy.  To evaluate and assess proposed changes to question design, response categories, and other elements of data collection, the U.S. Census Bureau conducts a National Content Test often several years before the decennial census.  Given that citizenship data are already collected in the American Community Survey (ACS), the bureau did not include a question on citizenship in the 2015 National Content Test.  Former Director of the U.S. Census Bureau, John Thompson, notes that including a citizenship question that has not been tested will likely affect “the rate, quality, and truthfulness of response” and will “run the risk of introducing serious undercounts for many population groups in the 2020 Census.” 


3.     Politicization.  Civil rights groups, population and statistical research organizations, and other opponents of the citizenship question argue that the unusual timing, along with the rationale for including the question, point to a politically motivated decision.  In response, many organizations have issued public statements, are pursuing litigation (e.g. NAACP and Attorneys General), and/or advancing other forms of direct action to oppose the citizenship question. 


On the other hand, supporters of the citizenship question, including the Heritage Foundation, argue that the data are essential for enforcing the Voting Rights Act (VRA).


For more information about the citizenship question, see these additional blog posts:


What is the justification for collecting data on citizenship in Census 2020?


Where do citizenship data come from?  Have citizenship data been collected in previous censuses? (Future post)


For additional background on this topic, see:

Jason Jurjevich