Census Bureau Will Be Checking Answers to Citizenship Question

If you don’t answer the citizenship status question on the census, will it matter? The Census Bureau has developed a plan for this possibility.

News about the Census Bureau deciding to reinstate a question about one’s citizenship status on the upcoming 2020 census has created quite a stir.

The Justice Department had requested the question be reinstated, and the Commerce Department ultimately concluded doing so was warranted to help enforce the Voting Rights Act. See 2020 Census Will Ask About Citizenship Status for details.

Since the announcement was made, a number of states and cities have sued to try to block the question from being included. At least one piece of legislation was introduced to ban the question. The White House has defended the decision, however, noting that the question has been included in many past census questionnaires.

FedSmith readers have had a lot to say about the issue as well. Some favor having the question, while others are opposed to it based on the hundreds of comments on my recent articles about the subject.

But some commenters have raised doubts about the validity of the question. What happens, for instance, if the question is skipped on the census questionnaire or not answered truthfully?

This was one comment that captured the essence of this:

Fact Checking the Responses

As it turns out, it isn’t a moot issue because the Census Bureau has a plan for this.

The Wall Street Journal reported that, in anticipation of this possibility, “[The Census Bureau] plans to mine immigration, Social Security and other state and federal records to check accuracy, and perhaps even change answers.”

The article cited a memo from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross outlining the details.

Ross’ memo describes the various options the Commerce Department looked at for obtaining “complete and accurate” data for the census. It ultimately decided that a combination of analyzing administrative data and responses to the census questions would provide the most accurate population data possible.

The memo details this approach:

Asking the citizenship question of 100 percent of the population gives each respondent the opportunity to provide an answer. This may eliminate the need for the Census Bureau to have to impute an answer for millions of people. For the approximately 90 percent of the population who are citizens, this question is no additional imposition. And for the approximately 70 percent of non-citizens who already answer this question accurately on the ACS, the question is no additional imposition since census responses by law may only be used anonymously and for statistical purposes.

Finally, placing the question on the decennial census and directing the Census Bureau to determine the best means to compare the decennial census responses with administrative records will permit the Census Bureau to determine the inaccurate response rate for citizens and non-citizens alike using the entire population. This will enable the Census Bureau to establish, to the best of its ability, the accurate ratio of citizen to non-citizen responses to impute for that small percentage of cases where it is necessary to do so.

The memo also went into detail on concerns about whether the question would lower response rates and increase agency costs. Ross said that neither was significant enough to not ask the question.

“I find that the need for accurate citizenship data and the limited burden that the reinstatement of the citizenship question would impose outweigh fears about a potentially lower response rate,” wrote Ross. He also said that Census Bureau staff advised him that costs would be minimal, primarily due to the fact that the citizenship question is already included on the American Community Survey.

A copy of the memo is included at the end of this article.

Too Much Personal Information?

Part of the debate that has arisen over the citizenship question is that asking about one’s citizenship is too invasive. In fact, some comments I have seen from readers imply this. Some commenters say it isn’t relevant so don’t ask the question. Others say knowing more about citizens present in the country is important for security.

This commenter expressed concerns about problems that arise from the government having too much of his/her personal information on file:

As a practical matter, data collected by the census every 10 years pale in comparison to what other federal agencies already have on file and routinely collect.

The Office of Personnel Management, for instance, has fingerprint data on file for federal employees (among other personal data), a significant portion of which was stolen in one of the data breaches in 2015.

The IRS collects our annual salaries, company information, addresses, bank account information, marital statuses, and a myriad of other personal data to take our tax dollars each year.

Whether it is good or bad that agencies collect this information is another debate (feel free to discuss it in the comments below). But Secretary Ross is obviously aware that the data his agency needs to find the answers to the citizenship question will likely be available. He said as much in his memo when he wrote, “the Census Bureau is working to obtain as many additional Federal and state administrative records as possible to provide more comprehensive information for the population.”

What is your opinion of the question and the Census Bureau’s plan for compiling the data? Feel free to weigh in in the comments following the article, but please remember that while it’s fine to disagree, it should be done respectfully.

Ross Memo Re: Reinstatement of Citizenship Question on 2020 Census

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of FedSmith.com. He has over 20 years of combined experience in media and government services, having worked at two government contracting firms and an online news and web development company prior to his current role at FedSmith.