We Can’t Sleep on Pushing for an Accurate, Equitable 2020 Census

By: Alejandra Y. Castillo, CEO, YWCA USA

Today the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is scheduled to hold hearings on the 2020 U.S. Census, with special attention to one proposed change: including a question about citizenship.

The Census Bureau’s plan to add the citizenship question has sparked a chorus of protests from officials nationwide, and activists, with state attorneys in New York, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, and other states filing a federal lawsuit against the Census Bureau and its parent federal agency, the U.S. Department of Commerce, seeking to halt the change.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, (D-NY), is among a number of members of Congress who say they are worried that this citizenship question will be used to suppress the participation of certain racial and ethnic populations, such as the Latinx or Muslim communities.

“It’s about intimidation,” Maloney said in an interview with NPR last month.

I share Maloney’s concern.

Why Include a Citizenship Question Now?

As former national director of a minority economic development agency at the Commerce Department, I am concerned that including a citizenship question in the 2020 Census will result in deep damage to our country’s democratic fabric of fairness and equitable access to taxpayer funded resources. My concerns spring from two primary areas:

  1. Many experts fear the citizenship question will dissuade a number of vulnerable communities of color from participating in the 2020 Census. This will directly impact funding for cities and states they live in, as well as many of the programs vital to historically-underserved communities, since federal and state funding allocations for social and public services are determined in large part by population data gathered in the census. The U.S. population is expected to shift to majority-minority status by approximately 2043, with the largest anticipated growths expected to occur in the same demographics that are most likely to be discouraged from participating in the 2020 census, such as Hispanics. This means that women, children, and other historically vulnerable populations stand to lose much-needed funding for programs and infrastructure that impact everything from their housing and food assistance to education and public health. Funding allocations at federal and state levels for social services and public health services is determined in large part by population data gathered in the census. For example, in 2009, the most recent year in which a full allocation analysis was conducted, some 400 billion dollars in U.S. funds were sent to programs including food assistance (71 billion), and Head Start early child development programs (8.5 billion), vehicles that disproportionately affect women and children of color. By more recent accountings, the total amount of funds that were determined by the 2010 census and dispersed across a range of programs is 600 billion.
  2. The U.S. Census is actually designed to count residents, not citizens. The purpose of the census, which is enshrined in Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, is to get as accurate accounting as possible of the nation’s total population, in order that voting districts can be configured, and funding distributed proportionate to population specifics. Historically, there always have been non-respondents, and efforts to fill in statistical information gaps left by non-respondents increases the cost per decennial census by hundreds of millions of dollars. In contemporary times, a massive project to transition the Census Bureau’s data collection methods from paper to digital, initiated several years ago, has proven to be a complex, expensive process that is far from complete, and has put the bureau into a budget deficit, which raises the risk of undercounting. Adding a citizenship question to the upcoming questionnaire threatens to dampen response, potentially driving additional cost increases as enumerators are forced to research critical information to fill larger than usual gaps.

In normal circumstances, Democrats and Republicans have understood and honored the importance of shielding the census from political games. However, these are not normal times. And given the dire implications, I am compelled to speak out for reasons similar to those outlined by two former Commerce Department chief executives, Secretary Penny Pritzker, who served during President Obama’s second term, and Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who held the role under George W. Bush, in their recent op-ed . They recently penned an Op-Ed sounding alarms about the proposed citizenship question change to the 2020 census. We all would like clear answers to the essential question: Why, since the citizenship question was dropped back in 1950, is this administration seeking to return the question now?

Wilbur Ross, the current US Secretary of Commerce, has received lukewarm reviews by economics experts from across the political spectrum for a number of actions that fall under the jurisdiction of the agency, including policy on U.S. trade policy, efforts to impose tariffs on goods from historic allies such as Canada, and, in a more personal context, for reportedly falling to sleep during important meetings abroad, such as a Trump Administration visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2017.

Secretary Ross may not be awake, but we cannot sleep on demanding a halt to any efforts to suppress full participation in the 2020 Census. And, as the congressional hearings into the Commerce Department’s rationale for seeking the change get underway, it is imperative that we understand the critical importance of the ripple effect of the statistics collected by the Census Bureau — as well as the possible motivations for why the Trump Administration is seeking to ask respondents their citizenship status.

Don’t Sleep on Demographic Data Collection

The citizenship question was dropped from the decennial census in 1950, reinstated in 1970 on the long-form questionnaire, and discontinued again in 2000 with implementation of the American Community Survey (ACS), which replaced the long-form. Since 2010, the ACS is the only Census Bureau questionnaire that collects information on citizenship and estimates voting-age population. Unconvincingly, the Justice Department on December 12, 2017 sent a letter to the Census Bureau requesting reinstatement of the citizenship question, citing “voter protection” as the reason for inserting the question.

Following the December 2017 request from the U.S. Department of Justice, Commerce Secretary Ross said he instructed the Census Bureau to include the citizenship question in the next version of the data-collection forms that have been sent to American residents for more than a century.

The possibility that “protecting voting rights” may not, in fact, be the source for what motivates the Trump Administration’s attempt to restore the citizenship question also drives my concerns: I’m the daughter of immigrants who became successful entrepreneurs after arriving in the U.S. more than 40 years ago from the Dominican Republic. Considering that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Department and ICE, along with certain law enforcement units within the Justice Department, have ratcheted up aggressive anti-immigrant actions to match President Trump’s vow to “secure our borders” and “throw out illegal aliens,” it is not a stretch to be, at the very least, skeptical about this Administration’s attempt to collect citizenship statuses of those who respond to the census. This administration’s anti-immigrant stance and actions have had a chilling effect in communities of color across the country, and the fear of arming the authorities with citizenship information is real and legitimate.

Thus, I applaud the efforts of the state attorneys general, as well as the several major cities, including San Jose, Calif., Philadelphia, PA, and three counties in Texas, who have joined the lawsuit to stop the inclusion of the citizenship question. These efforts demonstrate pragmatic solidarity with vulnerable communities in their districts and across the country who live, work, attend school and contribute to our country.

In my current role as Chief Executive of YWCA USA, I urge members of Congress to compel Secretary Ross to testify also, in order to address these and other detailed concerns about the plan to include the citizenship question in the upcoming U.S. Census. Changes to the questionnaire in the past have been implemented only after a lengthy public comment period, as well as a period of testing. No such safeguards and efficacy protocols have been suggested by Secretary Ross for the citizenship question. Why not? This and other pressing questions make it crucial for my organization and others to take action and be consistently communicating with their elected representatives about the importance of protecting the integrity of the Census.

The stakes are high. Secretary Ross may be sleeping when it comes to the importance of protecting this long-standing democratic mechanism for producing a fair, accurate counting of the U.S. population in order to fairly, equitably allocate funding to areas most in need — but we aren’t.

My call to action is for support organizations with members and constituents that stand to be most negatively impacted by a drop-off in Census participation to demand answers, and push back against a transparent attempt to constrain the participation of certain communities in a process that is mandated within our Constitution.

The YWCA represents a network of women, children, and families who are directly impacted by this, and we urge everyone from immigrant rights organizations and public education advocates, to direct service providers and community advocacy groups, to mobilize.

Collectively, we stand firmly against any threats to equity, justice, and access to opportunity. We are wide awake, vigilant and committed to ensuring a 2020 Census that is fully accessible, and accurate.

Alejandra Y. Castillo, CEO of YWCA USA, is former National Director of the Minority Business Development Agency at the U.S. Department of Commerce.