Why the 2020 Census Citizenship Question Matters in the 2018 Elections

Aaron Bernstein/Pool via AP

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Attorney General Jeff Sessions

The decennial census is a vital instrument in how Americans live their lives. Right now, the 2020 census is at risk and, with it, much that matters to all of us. 

The Trump administration, led here by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is seeking to use the census to send a message to President Trump’s base and to disadvantage their political opponents. Dismissing the advice and warnings of the statisticians and social scientists who oversee the Census Bureau, they have decided to include a question about every person’s citizenship status in the 2020 census. The result could well be a census that misses tens of millions of people, with consequences that will reverberate across the country.

Although most pundits believe that the adverse impact will be concentrated in a few blue states, closer analysis shows it could cost blue, purple, and red states seats in Congress, and cost mainly red states billions of dollars in federal funding. Yet so far, among those with the legal standing to push back against this proposal—our state attorneys general—only those in Democratic states have stepped up.

When I oversaw the 2000 Census as under secretary of commerce, I, along with the rest of the Clinton administration, took pride in our efforts to gather the most accurate information possible about everyone who lives in the United States. We knew that some $400 billion in federal funds would be disbursed annually based in part on census data—the number is $800 billion today—and that the fair allocation of seats in the House of Representatives depended on the accuracy and completeness of the census.

Even worse, perhaps, than Ross’s decision to include a citizenship question is his stated rationale, which is to help Sessions and the Department of Justice enforce the Voting Rights Act (an improbable concern for Sessions, who long has favored weakening the act). Ross’s statement raises the specter that the census will share individual personal information with law enforcement and other agencies. Such sharing would violate federal law as well as norms in place since the first census in 1790. 

This proposed “reform” will discourage not only undocumented immigrants and their families from filling out their census forms—people who have always been included without distinction, because the laws passed by Congress and the funds distributed by Congress affect everyone. There are also millions of legal residents who won’t pass the Ross-Sessions citizenship test. In addition, anyone with any reason to avoid giving the government their name and address might also opt out of the census—including millions of young people in arrears on their student loans and millions of parents behind on their child support. 

I estimate, conservatively, that this policy could discourage nearly 25 million people from answering the 2020 census. If millions of people decide to sit on the sidelines for this census, the inaccurate data could be a risk for all of us. For example, census data help the Centers for Disease Control plan for mitigating epidemics in population centers, and help rural hospitals calculate their staff needs for the pediatric care of young patients and geriatric care for much older ones. Census data help school districts budget for teachers and school construction, and help directors of water treatment plants plan their equipment needs and evaluate their performance. None of these uses are affected by whether the patients, elementary school students or water users are citizens or related to people behind in repaying their student loans or meeting their child support obligations.

While undocumented immigrants are concentrated in six states—four blue and two red—the other, larger groups of people likely to opt out of the Ross-Sessions census are distributed much more evenly across the country. Moreover, most of the states that stand to lose the most in federal funding tied to the census are solid Republican states. That’s because most of $800 billion per year in funding involve programs for low-income Americans, such as Medicaid, school lunches, and the S-CHIP program. Since those funds are distributed based on a state’s share of poor households, the states with the most at stake are those with above-average shares of low-income people.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia had poverty rates above the national average of 13.7 percent over the years 2014 to 2016. Of those, 15 states are red or at best purple states that would face serious cuts in federal funding. The deepest cuts would fall, in order, on Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico, Kentucky, Arizona, and West Virginia, followed by D.C., Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Florida, North and South Carolina, Texas, California, and Ohio. The bottom line is that everyone in those states—whatever their citizenship status—will pay a price for the Ross-Sessions policy.

Yet, the attorneys general in these red states are failing to defend their constituents and challenge the inclusion of a citizenship question, choosing instead to toe the misguided party line, lest it appear they’re not supporting the president.

Although this certainly shouldn’t be a partisan issue, only Democratic attorneys general are pushing back. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a federal lawsuit immediately after Ross announced the question would be added. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is leading a coalition of 18 Democratic attorneys general, six cities, and the bipartisan U.S. Conference of Mayors in filing a second federal lawsuit. They contend, as they should, that the citizenship question will deter participation and unlawfully violate the Constitution’s requirement for an “actual enumeration” of residents.

The Census should be apolitical in both its execution and its application. Forcing a partisan citizenship question onto the Census will be a dangerous mistake and a violation of the framers’ intent.

There are 35 state attorney general seats on the ballot this November. At a minimum, the voters in those states should take heed of what their attorneys general are doing—or not doing—to ensure an accurate 2020 census. Candidates running against the do-nothing AGs should make clear the dire consequences for their states should the Ross-Sessions proposal take effect.

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