Commentary, Defending Democracy

Editorials agree: Census question on citizenship is a big mistake

There were two fine op-ed in the Raleigh area over the weekend on the controversial Trump administration plan to mar the 2020 Census with an inappropriate question on citizenship.

Here’s columnist Ned Barnett of Raleigh’s News & Observer:

“A citizenship question will drive down the responses not only from undocumented immigrants afraid of deportation, but also the responses from native-born Americans and naturalized citizens who are living in immigrant communities. They’ll be wary of disclosing the presence of a non-citizen in their household at a time when federal officers are more aggressively arresting people who are in the U.S. illegally.

The risk from undercounting immigrants is high in North Carolina, said Rebecca Tippett, a demographer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She noted that 414,000 children in the state have at least one parent who is an immigrant. Undercounting many of those children could lead to the underfunding of schools. Meanwhile, missing anyone — child or adult — results in a loss of $988 per person in federal funding, she said.

Conservative Republicans welcome this filtering. An undercount of undocumented immigrants, their citizen children and other citizen relatives will help Republicans when legislative redistricting occurs after the 2020 Census.”

And here’s Rebecca Tippett, Director of Carolina Demography at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Carolina Population Center on WRAL.com:

“The concern about the newly added question is not related to its content. We have a long history of asking Americans about their citizenship status on the census and other surveys conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.  The concern is the addition of this question without the standard rigor and vetting process the bureau typically takes for adding new census questions.  Without this research, we do not understand how it will impact response rates, accuracy, and overall costs.

The census is one of the most important activities of our government. It is the foundation of our representative democracy.  Every decade, the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are divided among the states based on their total population in the most recent census.  The census also determines the allocation of more than half a trillion dollars of federal funds, including more than $16 billion annually to North Carolina….

Non-response in 2020 may be even higher, for many reasons. The U.S. population is larger and harder to count than ever before.  Overall response rates to statistical surveys have been declining steadily for the past few decades and Americans are increasingly distrustful of government data collection efforts.  If the newly added question increases non-response among immigrant communities as some worry, this could have far-reaching impacts on North Carolina.

Nearly 800,000 immigrants were living in North Carolina in 2016, representing 8 percent of the total population, with high concentrations in both urban and rural communities. Higher non-response and a greater undercount of the immigrant population could exacerbate the undercount of children in North Carolina in 2020.”

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