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Citizenship Question on Census is Wasteful and Harms Texans

Adding an unnecessary question costs a lot for no benefit to our democracy. 

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The Trump administration argues that asking about citizenship status on the decennial census is necessary for enforcing the Voting Rights Act. That’s why the Department of Commerce recently announced that it would add a citizenship question to the 2020 decennial census. The problem is the Census Bureau already collects this information.

Since 2000, including in 2010, the census has included a citizenship question on the American Community Survey, an ongoing sample survey of millions of people each year. The administration has not provided a reason why the American Community Survey is not sufficient to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Adding an unnecessary question is wasteful, but even more problematic is that it will unfairly skew both the distribution of federal funds and individuals’ equal representation in federal elections. Simply put, adding the question costs a lot, for no benefit to our democracy. Our congressional representatives should prevent the addition of this question to the decennial census.

This last-minute change is especially concerning for Texas residents. Texas stands to gain electoral votes thanks to population growth since 2010, but the state may not gain as many electoral votes as it should if the citizenship question is included.

Texas has a disproportionate share of noncitizens, and the 14th Amendment of the Constitution requires that all residents are counted to determine apportionment. The addition of the citizenship question not only affects political representation, it affects Texans’ bottom line. The 2020 census count will determine the allocation of more than $600 billion in federal funding each year.

If Texans are underrepresented, the state will not get its fair share of federal funds. That means fewer dollars for everything from infrastructure projects to education to housing programs.

Adding the question will also cause other issues. In 2010, the Census Bureau trimmed the survey to 10 barebones questions to reduce costs. Even so, it still cost $13 billion to administer and produce. Adding the citizenship question will increase the price tag in 2020 partly because it takes more resources to collect and process the data for every additional question.

The Census Bureau has conducted years of careful research to make the decennial census as accurate and efficient as possible. Question design and testing for the 2020 census began 10 years ago. Adding a new question now renders the preparatory work less valuable and will almost certainly make the count less accurate.

Past research indicates that the citizenship question especially discourages not only undocumented immigrants, but also those who live with undocumented immigrants, from responding. The inhibiting effect of a citizenship question would probably be even greater today than in the past due to the aggressive pursuit of undocumented immigrants by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This is true even though the Census Bureau cannot share the information it collects on individuals with other agencies. Because some will be more reluctant to fill out the forms mailed to their homes, the Census Bureau is forced to send people into the field to collect the data in person. In-person data collection is expensive.

The American Community Survey and decennial census combined are a useful resource for local communities, businesses, public health officials and academic researchers.

An accurate count in the full census helps provide baselines for calculating basic statistics such as death rates, birth rates and life expectancy. The census provides information on population growth and decline for localized areas, helping community planners determine where to invest in transportation and other forms of infrastructure and helping local businesses identify, for example, where to open retail establishments. As a social demographer, I understand the importance of an accurate census to be able to track population.

But, we should also ensure that we are fairly represented in federal elections, reduce government waste, and provide local communities the information they need to promote public health. And for that, we should urge our representatives to pass legislation to prevent the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 decennial census.

R. Kelly Raley is the Christine and Stanley E. Adams, Jr. Centennial Professor of Liberal Arts in the Department of Sociology and a faculty research associate in the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin. 

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Abilene Reporter News, and the Corpus Christi Caller Times.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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