Emily Merchant: Citizenship question risks skewing census

Univerity of California at Davis

The 2020 U.S. Census is still two years away, but demographers and civil rights activists are already expressing doubt about the validity of the results. At issue is whether it will fulfill the Census Bureau’s mandate to “count everyone once, only once, and in the right place.”

The task is not as simple as it seems. And it has serious political and social consequences.

The fear is that asking about citizenship status, newly mandated by the Trump administration, will make populations already vulnerable to undercounting even more likely to be missed. These powerless populations include the young, poor, non-white, non-English-speaking, foreign-born and transient.

An accurate count is critical to the functioning of our government. Census data determines how federal power and resources are distributed across the states.

It has ramifications for seats in the House, votes in the Electoral College and funds for federal programs. It guides the drawing of congressional districts and protection of civil rights and voting rights.

Places where a large number go uncounted get less than their fair share of political representation and federal resources. And when specific racial and ethnic groups are undercounted, it’s harder to identify and rectify violations of their rights.

My research on the international history of demography demonstrates the question of how to equitably count residents is neither new nor unique to the U.S. Historical experiences may hold important lessons as the Census Bureau finalizes plans for the 2020 count.

In 1790, the U.S. became the first country to take a regular census. Following World War II, the U.S. government began to promote census-taking in other countries as well, believing data about the size and location of populations in the Western Hemisphere could assist with defense planning. What’s more, U.S. businesses could also use the data to identify potential markets and labor forces in nearby countries.

The government soon began investing in a program called the Census of the Americas. Through this program, the State Department provided financial support and the Census Bureau provided technical assistance for Western Hemisphere census taking. In the process, data was standardized across countries to assist in projections of world population growth and calculation of social and economic indicators.

Through the UN, the effort was globalized in 1950. Since 1960, the agency has sponsored a World Census Program every decade.

The avowed goal was to give every resident an equal chance of being counted, ensuring accuracy. But from the outset, some countries conspired to take unfair advantage.

In 1950, Ecuador viewed the census as a means of “conquering the national territory administratively.” The military mapped rural areas for the first time, believing the census would help them establish control in areas that had previously remained out of reach due to decades of political turmoil and economic crisis.

But the census did not include any racial or ethnic classification, so provided no means to address discrimination faced by Ecuador’s indigenous communities. It wasn’t even possible to determine the size of the indigenous population or to judge whether it had been counted completely.

In Nigeria, a census conducted in 1962 was plagued by accusations from officials in the various regions that some areas had been counted more completely than others. The government ultimately repudiated the results and repeated the count in 1963.

The failure of this census weakened public faith in the ability of the government to either count or rule such a large and diverse population.

In the U.S., demographers began to recognize during World War II that the census was not counting everyone equally. Research showed African-Americans were less likely to be counted than white Americans. As a result, places with large non-white populations were underrepresented in the House and Electoral College.

While the U.S. census has been able to reduce the overall undercount since then, it still disproportionately misses African-Americans and other people of color today.

Historical challenges to census-taking show that widespread participation is key to an accurate census count. This has helped demographers understand that people are more likely to participate when they understand the process, aren’t worried participation will be used against them and can easily identify themselves in listed categories.

If the census is to guide the equitable distribution of political power and federal resources, it must also strive to count people as fairly as possible. And plans for inclusion of a potentially chilling question on citizenship status are casting early doubt on that.


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