The citizenship question will no longer be asked on the 2020 Census, but according to civil rights groups, the Trump administration is still finding ways to make sure African American and Latinx residents are still undercounted in the decennial survey.
There are three main problems that will likely contribute to an undercount: the new format of the Census, an understaffing of the Census Bureau, and a test version of the Census that still includes the citizenship question and could lead to more confusion.
Despite rolling out, for the first time, an internet-based questionnaire for conducting the count of all people living in the United States, the Trump administration has underfunded and understaffed the Census Bureau compared to previous years.
And even though it no longer plans to include the citizenship question on the actual 2020 Census, the Trump administration is still in the process of sending out a test-version of the survey that includes the question to nearly a quarter of a million households throughout the country.
Sending out the question, even during a test run, could confuse marginalized communities and prompt people not to respond when the actual survey is sent out next April, civil rights groups warn.
Households with noncitizen members might question the confidentiality of their responses and choose not to respond, fearing possible government misuse of the data. The Census Bureau itself calculated that the inclusion of the citizenship question during the actual survey would cause an undercount of an estimated 9 million people.
“That is a lingering concern but it’s especially a concern for us because it’s a concern for people responding to the questionnaire,” said Bradford Berry, general counsel at the NAACP.
“There is a fear that the government will not use this information properly and that has led to the concerns of so many organizations to oppose the inclusion of the citizenship question.”
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court called the administration out on its lie that it wanted to add the citizenship question so that it could better enforce the Voting Rights Act, and ruled that it would need a better rationale. Despite President Donald Trump tweeting shortly after the decision that he would ask attorneys to delay the questionnaire, a process that by law, is mandated to begin on April 1, 2020, the administration announced on Tuesday it would begin printing the Census without it.
Trump on Wednesday backtracked, vowing on Twitter that he will move forward with the citizenship question.
The Census Bureau began sending out nearly a half-million test surveys to households throughout the country shortly before the Supreme Court decision was made. The bureau included the citizenship question on half of the test surveys in an effort to better measure the question’s impact on responses, according to Terri Ann Lowenthal, a Census expert consulting at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Lowenthal told ThinkProgress that sending out a test survey of this magnitude this close to the rollout of the actual survey is “unprecedented.”
“There is no question that the current test will cause a great deal of confusion,” Lowenthal said. “The Census Bureau usually doesn’t risk the type of confusion this type of test would trigger even under normal circumstances.”
The Constitution mandates that a survey of all people living in the United States be conducted every 10 years. That data is used to draw up congressional and legislative districts and to determine how billions of dollars in federal funds are spent.
Communities of color have historically been undercounted in the Census, and civil rights groups say the Trump administration, even without the citizenship question, is taking measures to further exacerbate this problem.
Last year, the NAACP filed a lawsuit against the Census Bureau and the Trump administration, claiming that their lack of preparedness for the 2020 Census violated the U.S. Constitution and the Administrative Procedure Act.
The civil rights group, in an April filing, cited the Census Bureau’s final operation plan for the survey, which showed the agency would have fewer resources committed to the count than in 2010. These shortfalls include: hiring few people to conduct the count at homes that don’t self respond, opening half the number of field offices throughout the country, significantly cutting back on its community outreach efforts for hard-to-count communities, and canceling certain field tests ahead of time.
The cuts in staff are being made as the Bureau prepares to allow Americans to respond to the survey over the Internet. As the lawsuit points out, there are widespread cybersecurity concerns related to the digital response system and there are often lower rates of internet access in many hard-to-count communities with a high population of people of color.
“Field operations need to be properly funded but this administration is making cuts at the same time they are making new and untested changes to the methodology,” said Berry. “They don’t have any idea how this is going to shape out.”