Former Census Bureau Director John Thompson, pictured during his Senate confirmation hearing in 2013.
Former Census Bureau Director John Thompson, pictured during his Senate confirmation hearing in 2013. C-SPAN

The bureau’s former boss explains why adding a question about U.S. citizenship to the 2020 count would be a big mistake.

Next month marks the first test of the Census Bureau under the Trump administration. By the end of March, the bureau has to submit its formal list of questions for the 2020 census to Congress. There’s one item in particular that’s drawing much attention: In December, the Department of Justice requested the addition of a controversial citizenship question.

The DOJ explained that, in order to fully enforce the Voting Rights Act, “the Department needs a reliable calculation of the citizen voting-age population in localities where voting rights violations are alleged or suspected.”

That request alarmed many census-watchers, who were already anxious about the fate of the big decennial count under the Trump administration. Currently, the Census Bureau has neither a director nor a deputy director in place; last fall, the White House floated a name for deputy, who would not require Senate confirmation (but would serve as acting director). That candidate withdrew from consideration last month following criticism of his lack of administrative experience and somewhat provocative views on democracy.  

Speaking with CityLab after he gave remarks at an event on Tuesday morning, the bureau’s former director, John Thompson, explained why he agreed that the citizenship question would risk undermining the count.

“There are great risks that including that question, particularly in the atmosphere that we’re in today, will result in an undercount, not just of non-citizen populations but other populations that are concerned with what could happen to them,” Thompson said. “That is a tremendous risk.”

Thompson, who left the bureau last May, says that the 2020 census faces two significant threats, both of which may come to a head next month. The first is the citizenship question, which has drawn widespread condemnation from leaders. In January, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and 170 other organizations sent a letter to Wilbur Ross, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce (which runs the bureau), urging him to reject the DOJ’s request. More than 160 mayors sent him a similar notice earlier this month.

“The concern is it will cause great fear among certain populations that this data will be used for inappropriate purposes,” Thompson said. “The Census [Bureau] has a really, really hard job to convince everyone of two things. One is why it’s important to be counted. The other message that is really, really critical is that the census is confidential. The Census [Bureau] doesn’t give the data to anyone.”

In addition to the citizenship question, which has not been tested in a census environment since 1950, underfunding could also lead to drastic undercounting among certain populations—namely minorities, vulnerable families, and at-risk communities. These counts are critical for deciding representation in Congress and funding levels for law enforcement and public education, among other things.

Thompson now serves as the executive director of the Council of Professional Organizations on Federal Statistics, a nonprofit devoted to preserving and expanding the use of data by federal statistical collections. He was appearing at an event in Washington, D.C., assembled by the Center for Data Innovation, where he spoke about the bureau’s push for automation and priorities under the federal budget. He hammered the DOJ’s effort to add a citizenship question so late in the process, noting that the American Community Survey has historically served as the federal source for information on citizenship. “It apparently, until recently, has been adequate,” he said.

Thompson added, “Putting that [citizenship] question on the decennial census has the risk of raising fears among certain populations that it would be very hard for the Census Bureau to countermand.”

Any inaccuracies in the 2020 census will have long-lasting and wide-ranging effects, as it would carry over into other surveys performed by the Census Bureau, including the American Population Survey, the Current Population Survey, and the National Health Interview Survey. “If there is inaccuracy in the decennial census, that will be with us for 10 years,” Thompson said.

Will the bureau submit to the DOJ request? Thompson wouldn’t speculate on whether he thinks his old colleagues will add the citizenship item to the questionnaire it submits to Congress next month. But even if they do, there’s an additional level of official oversight that gives him hope: Article 1, section 2 of the Constitution. It says that “the actual Enumeration” is the responsibility of Congress, to be executed “in such as they shall by Law direct.”

What that means is that, should the Census Bureau add the new question, “Congress doesn’t have to accept it,” Thompson said. “I think it was smart of the people who wrote [the Constitution] to include that.”

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