Former Census Director Warns of Fallout from Proposed 2020 Citizenship Question

April 09, 2018
Kenneth Prewitt

Are you a citizen of the United States? If the eight words in that question are added to the 2020 census, as the Trump administration has proposed, they will have profound consequences over the next decade.

“Any seriously informed person would conclude that this will depress cooperation with the census in 2020,” said Kenneth Prewitt, who was director of the 2000 census and is now the Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. Critics of adding the question say it is a deliberate attempt to depress the count of non-citizens and the undocumented. And that, they say, would violate the mandate in the U.S. Constitution to count every living person in the United States.

The population count determines how the 435 members of the House of Representatives are apportioned; states stand to gain or lose House seats, as well as billions of dollars in federal funding, after each census. In addition to power and money being distributed by population counts, every reputable sample survey, both in the government and private sector, is calibrated by census counts—even the enormous databases of Facebook and Google. “There is only one reliable count of how many and how geographically and demographically diverse we are,” Prewitt said. “That is the census.”

The state of California filed suit to challenge the proposed question hours after Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees the census bureau, made the announcement. Seventeen additional states, as well as the District of Columbia, announced April 3 that they have joined in a multi-state lawsuit spearheaded by New York, as have six cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. It's possible that more plaintiffs may join them.

Prewitt is one of six former census directors who sent a letter in January to Ross about how adding the citizenship question would imperil the accuracy of the 2020 census.

“There is a great deal of evidence that even small changes in survey question order, wording and instructions can have significant, and often unexpected, consequences for the rate, quality and truthfulness of response,” the letter said.

As an expert on the census, Prewitt knows that “if you put a question on the form, no matter how benign it seems on the surface—and make no mistake, the citizenship question is not totally benign—it will interact in unexpected ways,” he said. “That is why it is tested with focus groups and surveys, often asking, ‘What did you think of when you saw that question?’”

Citizenship has not been on the census since 1950. And even then it was phrased differently, in a series of questions that began with “Where were you born?” And only for those not born in the U.S., “Have you or do you intend to become a naturalized citizen.”

The current Justice Department requested that the question be restored for the 2020 census, claiming it was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act. This is misleading, Prewitt said. “From its passage in 1965 the VRA has been fully enforced with a citizenship question on the American Community Survey, the largest sample survey taken by the government.”

Adding the question at this juncture poses a significant problem beyond the legal challenges and political opposition. Every question on the census is expected to be field tested thoroughly before it is included in the final form. The 2020 census dress rehearsal is now in the field, matching the time, two years hence, when the actual census will be taken. The current test does not ask about citizenship.

The lack of testing could be a violation of the Administrative Procedures Act, a 1946 congressional mandate that governs how federal agencies propose and establish their regulations. When Prewitt was census director, he said, no new question would be introduced without being put into the Federal Register to elicit comments and then tested in the field to see if they worked as intended.

In addition to running the 2000 census, Prewitt was a professor at the University of Chicago, where he also directed the National Opinion Research Center. Early in his education, when he was a student at the Harvard Divinity School in 1960, Prewitt saw a poster: “Work for the census, make some money!” He applied and was recruited as a crew leader.

In one of life’s ironies, he hired as an enumerator, a young man named Wilbur Ross, then at the Harvard Business School, to go knocking door-to-door—the same Ross who as commerce secretary now oversees the census.