Challenge #3: A Citizenship Question and Census 2020: Quantifying the Undercount Risk in Oregon

The decision by U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, to include a citizenship question on the upcoming 2020 Census has generated much controversy. On January 15, 2019, a federal judge in New York District Court, Jesse Furman, ordered the administration to remove the citizenship question from the Census 2020 form. For now, Judge Furman’s decision means that respondents will not be asked about their citizenship in the 2020 census. On Thursday, January 16, 2019, the Trump administration filed paperwork challenging this order, and is now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take the court case.

The census, held every 10 years, is charged by the U.S. Constitution to count everyone.  Securing a fair and accurate count is not only critical for determining political representation, but also ensures fair distribution of federal resources to state, county, and local municipalities.  The concern among many is that the citizenship question would yield lower census response rates among certain groups, namely non-citizens, persons of color, children, and individuals of lower socioeconomic status.  The lower response rates generated by the citizenship question, combined with a tendency to undercount these groups in the first place, together would increase the overall census undercount, effectively leading to underrepresentation.  Census advocates point to other concerns about the question as well, including: an unclear and uncertain justification for adding the question, and the question not being formally tested by the U.S. Census Bureau.

To quantify the undercount risk of the citizenship question in Oregon, we followed a framework outlined in a recent article by Beth Jarosz of the Population Reference Bureau (PRB).  Using data from the American Community Survey (ACS), we set out to estimate how many Oregon residents live in a household with at least one non-citizen, principally because these households would be more likely to be undercounted.  We report the following four takeaways for Oregon:

  1. Total Population.  The data show that nearly a half-million (456,900), or almost 1 in 9 Oregonians live with at least one non-citizen, meaning they would be more likely to be undercounted with a citizenship question in the upcoming decennial census.

  2. Age.  Children are more likely to live with at least one non-citizen, meaning that children would be more likely to be undercounted.  Some 162,000 Oregonians 19 years and under live with a non-citizen, including almost 1 in 5 children between 0-9 years of age (Table 1).  Children are already a historically undercounted group; a citizenship question would make it more difficult to accurately count children in Oregon and across the U.S.

  3. Race/Ethnicity.  A citizenship question would make it more difficult to count Oregonians of color.  Roughly 78% of Oregonians living with a non-citizen are persons of color, despite making up 24% of the state’s population (Table 2).  Individuals of color more likely to be undercounted include Asian or Pacific Islander and Hispanic individuals, where 43% and 53% live with at least one non-citizen, respectively.

  4. Housing Tenure and Poverty. A citizenship question would also make it more difficult to count Oregonians with limited means.  Roughly 17% of Oregon renters and 19% of Oregonians living below the poverty level live with non-citizens, and are at elevated risk of being undercounted (Table 3).  Renters make up about 37% of Oregon’s population but comprise nearly 56% of the population at risk of being undercounted. Similarly, Oregonians living below the poverty level make up 16% of the Oregon population but make up nearly 26% of the at-risk population.  

Table 1.  Oregonians Living With at Least One Non-Citizen by Age Cohort, 2012-2016.

Source: American Community Survey (ACS), Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS), 2012-2016 (five-year combined estimates)

Table 2. Oregonians Living With at Least One Non-Citizen by Race/Ethnicity, 2012-2016.

Source: American Community Survey (ACS), Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS), 2012-2016 (five-year combined estimates)

Table 3.   Oregonians Living With at Least One Non-Citizen by Housing Tenure and Poverty Status, 2012-2016.

Source: American Community Survey (ACS), Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS), 2012-2016 (five-year combined estimates)

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Jason Jurjevich