Blocked Citizenship Question Not Likely To Lower Census Response, Bureau Says

Nov 1, 2019
Originally published on November 1, 2019 2:28 pm
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Trump administration fought to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census. Opponents of that question fought back in court and got the question blocked. One of their arguments was that the citizenship question would lower responses to the census. But the Census Bureau has now released early findings from research that challenges that notion. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been covering the whole back-and-forth over this and joins us now from New York. Hi, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So can you just remind us why this question became such a big deal and what exactly the Census Bureau is saying here?

LO WANG: This question would have asked, is this person a citizen of the United States? It's a kind of question that the Bureau's own researchers have known to be a sensitive question, so a question that people worried would likely scare non-citizens from participating in the census. And, again, very important to underline there's not going to be a citizenship question on the 2020 census. But Census Bureau's research now, early preliminary results, show that if the courts had allowed it to be added, the results show that it's not likely to have had a significant effect on whether or not households would fill out a census themselves.

Again, this is early analysis of a national experiment. Around a half million households were participating. They were asked to fill out test forms, some with the citizenship question, the other half of households without the question. And there were slightly lower response rates among some groups, but it was a less than 1% difference in share of Hispanic participants. And so this is a big shift, if this bears out - these results - that maybe this question does not necessarily impact self-response rates as people had expected.

GREENE: But what are the actual implications here? I mean, the courts, as we said, blocked this question from the 2020 census. What is the Bureau hoping to accomplish by still researching this?

LO WANG: Well, this was research that started in the midst of the legal battle over the question. It started just a few weeks before the Supreme Court made its ruling in June and continued after the ruling. It actually caused a lot of confusion around the country from folks who were asked to participate in what was called the 2019 Census Test. People were not sure why was the Census Bureau still asking a citizenship question on a test census form after the courts have ruled it could not be added.

But the Bureau says it wanted to do this research in order to make sure that any future officials who wanted to add this question, they had this research ready on the shelf to inform any future decision-making. And point to remember, President Trump, his executive order from July does direct the commerce secretary, who oversees the Census, to start looking into a process of adding a citizenship question to the 2030 census.

GREENE: Isn't the president also looking for other ways to get citizenship information, like going around the fact that this was blocked for the actual census in 2020?

LO WANG: That's right, and I'm tracking all of that. The citizen - the Census Bureau, rather, is trying to compile government records mainly from federal agencies like Department of Homeland Security and also trying to get state driver's license records in order to produce detailed citizenship data. And President Trump says he wants the citizenship data to allow states to use in redrawing voting districts after the 2020 census. It could politically benefit Republicans and non-Hispanic white people.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reporting from New York. Thanks as always, Hansi.

LO WANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.