National

U.S. Census Is Not About Citizenship

Government and business depend on a complete and accurate count of who lives in the country.

Count them all.

Photographer: Rolf Schulten/ullstein bild via Getty Images

As former secretaries of Commerce, with direct oversight of the U.S. Census Bureau, we have grave concerns about the proposed addition of a citizenship question to the decennial census in 2020. If included, this question will put in jeopardy the accuracy of the data that the census collects, and increase costs. 

The census should not be a partisan issue. Mandated under the U.S. Constitution, the census requires the actual enumeration of all persons in the United States, not simply all citizens. In fact, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld this system of counting everyone in 2016.

For nearly 70 years, the questionnaire that has gone to all households has not included a citizenship question. And circumstances have not changed to justify the inclusion of this untested question now.

Having served under presidents from both major U.S. political parties, we were extremely proud of our Census Bureau. It has a worldwide reputation as a premier statistics and data-gathering agency. There is no better source for understanding the fabric of America and all of its intricacies than through the census and the exceptional work done by the career civil servants there.

The addition of an untested citizenship question, however, puts that reputation in jeopardy. There is typically a multi-year process for suggesting and testing new questions. Questions should be added only after the Census Bureau has adequately tested the potential effect of the question on response and accuracy rates. 

It is the responsibility and burden of the Commerce Department to demonstrate that changes to existing questions and the addition of new ones will not create harm and that it would increase completeness and accuracy. The lack of data on either the potential harm or potential increase in accuracy — especially when caused by lack of testing — is all the more reason to resist adding or changing existing questions at this late date.

Moreover, there is a clear cost to including this untested question. Millions of dollars have already been spent testing the current form and the questions that are set to be used. These dollars will be wasted because that form would now be obsolete. In addition, if residents fail to respond to the census, the bureau is required to make its best efforts to obtain an actual enumeration by collecting data from those non-responding households. 

For each percentage point of non-responsiveness, the bureau is expected to spend approximately $55 million in an attempt to recover that missing data. Although Secretary Wilbur Ross suggests that the cost might be lowered by using technology, such methods are untested and themselves may lead to unpredictable results — including increasing that cost.

The results of the census have far-ranging consequences. Not only it is used to determine the number of congressional seats allocated to each state. Within each state, the data are used to draw district and local electoral maps. Without accurate census data, jurisdictions will not be represented properly. 

Just as important is the role that census data play in business decisions. American businesses, both small and large, depend on the demographic and economic information gathered to help determine where their customers are based, what workforce is available, and other factors that affect critical investment decisions. Without accurate data, these businesses cannot make sound and reliable decisions about hiring, marketing and locations.

Finally, the distribution of more than $600 billion in federal funding for local communities is based on census data. That federal funding — for disaster relief, health services, development grants, among many other things — could be misallocated or wasted if the census data are inaccurate.

Six past census directors — from both parties — recently expressed deep concerns about adding a citizenship question to the 2020 survey. We have worked with several of these directors. They are professionals and experts in managing large statistical agencies. We do not believe that their judgment should be substituted without empirical evidence. The current leadership of the Census Bureau also urged the Commerce secretary to reject the addition of the citizenship question.

We do not take lightly our decision to disagree with Secretary Ross and to request that he reconsider his decision. But the stakes are simply too high. If necessary, we urge Congress to act and protect the integrity and accuracy of the U.S. census.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the authors of this story:
    Penny Pritzker at jhock@psppartners.com
    Carlos Gutierrez at mrigali@albrightstonebridge.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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