As I’m four chapters into my writing my book on the census, I’m paying close attention to what’s going to happen in 2020. Now that the Census Bureau has outlined the subjects and the specific wording of the questions for the 2020 census and future ACS, here’s my summary of what’s changing, and what’s not. NPR has been doing an excellent job covering every aspect of this, and I link to their articles throughout this post.
Residency for the military. Up until now, members of the military who were temporarily deployed overseas were counted at their US address at their time of enlistment. Many communities that are home to military bases have argued that this severely impacts their counts, and that the census should count personnel based on where their home military base is (remember, in addition to apportioning Congress, $600 billion in federal aid is distributed annually to state and local governments based on census numbers). The Census Bureau agreed, and this change will be implemented in 2020.
Same sex marriage. The question on relationships will change, so that people can explicitly state whether they have a married or unmarried partner, and whether their spouse or partner is opposite sex or same sex. Up until now, the Census Bureau recoded every household that indicated that they were married people of the same sex to unmarried partner status, and did a special tabulation using the relationship and gender questions to count same sex partnerships. Now that same sex marriage is recognized under federal law (as of 2015), the ambiguity of counting people by relationship can be cleared.
Ethnicities for white and black. For the first time, white and black people will be able to write in a specific nationality or ethnicity under their race, just as people of other races (Asian, Native American, Hawaiian or Pacific Islander) and of Hispanic and Latino ethnicity have long been able to do.
Citizenship. This is a pretty controversial one that may change by the time we get to 2020, but due to Justice Department lobbying and pressure from the Executive branch, there will be a question that asks whether a person is a US citizen or not. Ostensibly they say this data is necessary to combat voter fraud, although there is absolutely no evidence that widespread voter fraud exists. I’ll address this in more detail at the end of this post.
What Stays the Same
Residency for people in prison. Parallel to the military discussion, many have argued that people who are incarcerated should be counted at their home address, and not where they are incarcerated. This practice has an adverse impact on communities that suffer from crime and need political representation and funding, while artificially inflating the populations of rural communities where large prisons are typically located. The Census Bureau disagreed, maintaining that prison is the usual place of residence for people who are incarcerated, and therefore they should be counted there.
Measuring gender. The census asks people to identify their sex as male or female, and specifically uses the term sex instead of gender to emphasize that they are asking about simple biology and chromosomes, and not about sexual identification, expression, or preference. Many (including several federal agencies and members of Congress) have lobbied for a question on gender identification and sexual preferences, arguing that it is necessary under civil rights legislation. No such questions will be added.
Hispanic and Latino and race. The Census Bureau conducted almost a decade of studies and tests on revising the race and ethnicity questions, and the biggest suggestion was to make Hispanic and Latino a race and not a separate ethnicity. Their studies showed that society, and people of Hispanic ethnicity, largely view Hispanic and Latino as a race. A large percentage of Hispanics choose Other as their race, since Hispanic is not an option under the race question. The Office of Management and Budget chose to simply ignore these suggestions, and since approval from OMB is necessary (as data on race is collected across the federal government) the questions will remain the same. The second major suggestion, also ignored, was to create a new racial category for Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) people who are currently counted as white. With the exception of the optional ethnic write-ins for whites and blacks, the racial and ethnic categories for 2020 will be the same ones used in 2000 and 2010.
The Citizenship Question Controversy
Is asking about citizenship really new? The oft-quoted “fact” in the media is that this question hasn’t been asked since the 1950 census, but that’s only partially true. This could be the first time since 1950 that this question was asked as part of the short census form that 100% of the population is asked to complete. The short form (from 1960 to 2000) and the only form (2010 to present) is designed to record just the basic demographic characteristics of the population for the purpose of reapportioning seats in Congress, redrawing legislative boundaries, and providing fundamental baseline numbers on which other statistical products are based. Citizenship had previously been asked on the sample long form (from 1960 to 2000 sent, to 1 in 6 households) and is currently asked on the American Community Survey (2005 to present, sent to 3.5 million addresses annually) The long form and ACS were designed for a different purpose: to measure the broad socio-economic characteristics of the country. Both the ten-year census and the ACS ask questions which are required under federal law, to meet different legislative obligations.
Why is this controversial? Not only is the citizenship question unnecessary for fulfilling the basic requirements of the decennial census, it’s actually detrimental. The Census Bureau is charged with counting every single person in the United States, regardless of their voting eligibility, citizenship status, or legality. As long as a person isn’t a visitor or tourist, they are counted as a resident. None of these characteristics (with the sole exception of counting slaves as three-fifths of a person prior to the Civil War) has ever been a factor in whether a person is counted in the census or not. Congressional seats have always been apportioned based on total population, and legislative districts have long been delineated using total counts. This was the intent of the Founding Fathers and has been upheld by the Supreme Court numerous times (as recently as 2016).
Given the fear that many immigrants have of government officials, especially from this current administration which has shown unbridled hostility, it’s likely that many non-citizens (legal residents and undocumented alike) will not fill out the census form, thus resulting in an undercount and a possible loss of political power and federal aid for states that have high immigrant populations (which tend to be blue states, but not exclusively so). In order for the Census Bureau to insure confidence in the counting process, and to get the most accurate count (which is their primary mission), they have to assure people that their personal, individual data will not be published or shared, and they must make it clear that they have no relationship with regulatory branches of the government that would use this data against them.
But even though individual responses are kept confidential for 72 years (the Census only publishes data summarized by population groups and geography), data from the ten year census is available at the census block level, which is the smallest and finest level of geographic detail. This data could potentially be used (by the Border Patrol or ICE) to identify and target small clusters of areas that have a high percentage of non-citizens. If you think this sounds far-fetched, see this article from the Washington Post: it’s essentially what happened to Japanese American citizens who were rounded up for internment during WWII.
Obviously, it’s not in the Census Bureau’s best interest to add this question. The announcement that it was being added was made by the head of the Commerce Department, of which the Census Bureau is part, and not by the Bureau itself. The Census Bureau meticulously studies and tests every question that gets added to the form years in advance, and it seems clear that this was something that was tacked on at the last minute.
Congress could move to strip this question from the form; it’s pretty unlikely this will happen now, but it could if the midterm elections flip the legislature to the Democrats. There are also a number of lawsuits from different states to try and stop the question from being added. Whether the question stays or goes, I think the damage is done and the count will be negatively impacted, given the sad state of our government. If the question remains it could end up being a useless data point, as people may still fill out the form and skip that question. While you’re required by law to complete the census, it seems unlikely that the Census Bureau will be able to chase after millions of people who refuse to answer a single question.