The battle over a controversial citizenship question on the 2020 census may have profound economic implications for the Mountain West.
Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross added the question last year. It asks: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” If yes, you record when and how you became a citizen. If no, you check the box “No, not a U.S. citizen.”
This question has been asked annually for the past two decades on the American Community Survey. That’s a longer questionnaire sent out by the Census Bureau to a small percentage of households. But citizenship status hasn’t been a question on the decennial census – the one that goes to every household – since 1950.
Elizabeth Garner, State Demographer for Colorado, said even though everyone is legally required to fill out the census, “a lot of concerns are that people are just going to refuse to fill out the questionnaire.” She said people might be afraid, or confused, or even decide to protest the census altogether. “And,” she said, “that then can lead to severe undercounts of the total population.”
Soon after the question was added, a number of cities and states – and the U.S. Conference of Mayors – filed a lawsuit to get it removed. A federal court ruled in their favor. The Trump administration appealed and has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to expedite a hearing. Garner said high stakes are pinned to the outcome.
“We miss out a lot when we don’t have full information about our population,” she said.
A quick civics review here:
For nearly two-and-a-half centuries every household in the country has been asked to fill out the census form. It comes every 10 years. You are asked about your age, sex, race, how many people are living in the household, the relationships between them ... you get the idea. It’s the government trying to figure out how many people and what kinds of people live where.
Garner said that information plays an important role in our democracy.
“It is the foundation for representative government,” said Garner. “So you know how we have the House of Representatives and there's representatives based on the population of every state? This is the foundation for it. It’s awesome.”
That process is called apportionment, and it could shift power across the country if there is an undercount in 2020, though Mountain West states are not likely to lose seats this time. Colorado and Montana could actually gain a seat each.
But Garner says it’s important to remember that census data also determines the amount of money each state gets from the federal government. And that’s where our region could lose big.
“Federal funding is allocated based on population,” said Garner.
In the Mountain West, the amount ranges from about $1,000 to $2,000 per person per year. Garner says that money goes directly to fund programs like Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, road improvement and public housing. And that data is used for 10 whole years.
“So if by chance we're undercounted in that decennial count,” said Garner, “then that undercount impacts our federal funding allocation throughout the decade.”
Laurence Benenson with the National Immigration Forum, a nonprofit think tank in Washington D.C., said there’s something that’s been overlooked.
“Given the changing immigration patterns we've had in the United States over the past 10 or 20 years,” Benenson said, “a number of red states would be negatively impacted.”
That includes states in our region.
What’s more, Benenson said, some blue states with large immigrant populations, like California and Massachusetts, are less likely to be affected by the decrease in federal dollars because they have higher per capita incomes to compensate.
“It actually tends to be more red states that voted for President Trump in 2016 than blue states that would stand to lose this important grant funding,” Benenson said.
Now, there is a safety net for collecting accurate data and avoiding all these losses. Census workers. People who come knock on your door to get your information if you haven’t returned the form by mail.
But Benenson pointed out that “for years the census has been chronically underfunded. And if you look at what Congress has proposed for 2020, many experts are still concerned they don’t have the staffing they need.”
The census did get more funding for 2020 than in years past, but if a marked increase in census workers is required to track down people who don’t respond, that could get costly.
The Trump administration said they added the question to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. And other advocates for the citizenship question say this is data about our country that we need to know.
Hans von Spakovsky is with the Heritage Foundation. He shrugs off the claim that the question could cause an undercount of the population.
“There's absolutely no evidence to support that,” von Spakovsky said. “That's pure speculation. If you are a non-citizen in the country legally then there's no reason for you not to fill out the survey.”
And he believes the citizenship question is especially important right now.
“Because we are in the midst of a very vigorous debate about immigration policy and it's hard to do that without accurate information and data.”
It’s a debate that many immigrants are very familiar with. I recently met up with some students at a local English as a second language class in Colorado Springs to ask them what they thought about the citizenship question on the census.
They were mostly immigrants from Mexico. Some said they’d fill out the survey, no problem. Others said they wouldn’t. Or they would at least leave the citizenship question blank. The Census Bureau has said forms with that question left blank will still be counted.
But student Victoria Soto voiced a universal concern.
“The problem is not that you are or are not a citizen.” Soto said. “The problem is, what is the government doing with this information?”
Still, Colorado State Demographer Elizabeth Garner said it’s important to note that since the 50s we’ve had strong privacy laws to keep individual-level data confidential.
She also responded to another concern.
“The citizenship question doesn’t get to legal status,” Garner said, “so you’re not putting out there that you’re an illegal resident.”
Whether that will put minds at ease remains to be seen. And whether the citizenship question gets the green light or not, the issue has to be decided by June. That’s when the paper survey goes to the printer.
To complicate matters further, 2020 will also be the first year the census will be offered online in addition to paper. That has sparked concerns about cybersecurity and could be another factor in public wariness about answering the questionnaire.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.