2020 Census: The Citizenship Question

2020 Census: The Citizenship Question

How the Citizenship Question Affects the Census

Every 10 years, the US Census Bureau runs a count of each person living in the US. We’re honored to chair the business subcommittee of the Austin-Travis County Census 2020 Complete Count Committee, a volunteer committee tasked with increasing awareness and motivation of residents to respond to the 2020 Census. In addition to our work with the committee, we’ll be providing the community with information on the Census and its challenges. This is the fourth article of a series covering these issues leading up to the 2020 Census, which launches April 1, 2020. In this post, we outline the citizenship question. Review our most recent post about tech and the private sector and our first post for an overview of the census and why every count matters.

While courts permanently blocked the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, the Census Bureau is continuing ahead with sending surveys that ask about citizenship status. For the first time since 1950, in what the Census Bureau dubbed the “2019 Census Test,” surveys were sent out over the summer to almost half a million households in which half asked about citizenship while the other half did not contain a citizenship question. These tests were continued after the citizenship question was removed to gather data on how future attempts to add the question might might lower response rates and drive up future census costs. Yet, these tests had the unintended effect of exacerbating further confusion on whether or not the citizenship question was indeed going to be on the 2020 Census and some survey recipients even doubted the surveys as fraudulent

While the citizenship question will not be included on the 2020 Census, it is still important to understand how the addition of one in the future might affect Census responses. According to a 2018 study published by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, the inclusion of the question, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” would lead to a 2020 undercount of 6 million Hispanics, or about 12 percent of the Hispanic population. According to this study, Texas would have the third largest undercount share of the Hispanic population. This matters to Texans because for every person that is not counted, that is a loss in Federal dollars needed to support Texans on a day-to-day basis.

“A citizenship question would hit Texas state funds especially hard, George Washington University researcher, Andrew Reamer found. The state would lose an estimated $378 million annually in Medicaid funds alone.”

The Trump Administration argued the citizenship question would help enforce voting rights laws, yet the Supreme Court called this reasoning “contrived” and later reports “emerged showing that the proposal was racially motivated and designed expressly to benefit non-Hispanic whites and Republicans.” Because Census data is also used to apportion how many Congressional seats go to states, this undercount would lead to Texas gaining one, rather than two, House seats. 

As discussed in our previous post, the private sector relies on Census data for important business decisions such as where to locate distribution centers, where to expand local new stores, and where they have the best chance of seeing a high return on investment. A major distortion of this data in Texas could spell bad news for business. Members of the private sector have voiced concern over the inclusion of a citizenship question on the Census and the potential undercount. Lower response rates present an additional problem of driving up Census costs; when no one answers for a home or answers incompletely, the Census Bureau attempts a series of follow-up contacts, including sending census takers to attempt in-person interviews. This could increase costs by hundreds of millions of dollars.

It is important for the Austin and greater Texas community to understand the potential harmful effects of asking a citizenship question on the Census in order to collectively oppose the inclusion of one in the future. 

Future installments will address the following topics and challenges as they relate to the 2020 Census:


  • Funding the census
  • Methods: Internet, rural broadband, and data privacy
  • District maps, gerrymandering, voting rights and civil rights enforcement


What topics are you interested in? What would you like to be covered? Tweet @AustinTech with census topics you’d like to learn more about.

This post was researched and written by Jada Fraser on behalf of Austin Tech Alliance.

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