Every ten years, the federal government fulfills its constitutional mandate to take an accurate count of how many people live in our country. Last week, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross approved the Justice Department’s last-minute request to include a citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. Census. Since then, 17 states, seven cities and the United States Conference of Mayors have a filed a lawsuit against the Census Bureau and Commerce Department asserting the move goes against federal law. The NAACP also sued the Census for its inability to conduct an accurate count of people of color in low-income communities.  

The addition of the citizenship question would cause census participation to plummet, especially among immigrant communities. In the only Census Bureau preliminary field test currently underway, in Providence County, Rhode Island – down from five test regions in 2010 due to agency budget shortfalls – early results are showing reduced response rates from immigrants and communities of color, even without the citizenship question on the test form. In a research document, the Census Bureau has recognized members of these populations are reluctant to participate due to the current political climate of fear imposed by President Trump’s policies and constant worrisome news stories. Because many immigrant families are living in heightened uncertainty, the addition of a citizenship question would only serve to make them less likely to participate in the Census for fear that it could result in their own or their loved one’s deportation. This fear is not unwarranted, as the federal government has a grim history of using Census data to target and cause irreparable harm to both immigrants and communities of color. Even citizens in immigrant communities may be hesitant to participate in the census in the current climate if they have a non-citizen family member in the household that they must include in the count.

The citizenship question has crucial implications on how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds for critical safety net programs are apportioned and delivered to states, including Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In FY2015, states received approximately $589.7 billion from 16 large federal financial assistance programs, with the allocations based on data from the 2010 Census.  

Secretary Ross’s decision to include a citizenship question also carries implications for accurate congressional representation. Supreme Court rulings have affirmed the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal representation. Public officials use Census figures to determine the number of seats in the House of Representatives, and by extension, the Electoral College votes for each state. State and local leaders, such as county officials, also use census data to respond to and invest in community needs, including access to health services, transportation services, affordable housing and funding for veteran programs. An inaccurate, insensitive Census count of immigrants and people of color skews accurate population-based representation in Congress, impacts how health care funding decisions are made and threatens health and nutrition services critical to reducing health disparities and promoting health equity.   

Consumer health advocates can play an important role in this fight, including:

  • Educating state and local decision-makers on how an inaccurate census count could threaten public health programs that provide crucial services to the populations they serve;
  • Educating local and state officials, community leaders and small business owners on the economic implications an inaccurate Census count could bring to their communities;  
  • Supporting organizations such as the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in their efforts to move senators and  representatives to call on Secretary Ross to testify on his reasoning behind adding a citizenship question; and
  • Prepare for upcoming public comment periods later this year to elevate how the citizenship question threatens the integrity of the U.S. Census and jeopardizes the economic vitality and civil rights of immigrants and communities of color.

The proposal to add the citizenship question goes directly against the vital need to address the Census’ historical undercounting of underserved communities, including Latinx children and families, communities of color and rural populations. It will be critical for health, nutrition, civil rights and immigrant rights’ organizations to work together and collectively respond to federal attempts to dissuade underserved, underrepresented and undercounted populations from participating in a democratic process crucial to the health and well-being of their families and communities.