Late on March 26, the Department of Commerce announced that the 2020 census will add a citizenship question.

“Adding a citizenship question to the decennial census without appropriate testing introduces unknown accuracy risks due to the potential that it will deter legal or illegal immigrants from responding,” worried David Almy, CEO of the Insights Association, the leading nonprofit organization representing the marketing research and data analytics industry.

“Without testing and with fewer respondents, the decennial headcount likely will be less accurate, less valuable and unnecessarily expensive,” Almy added. “To ensure accuracy, the census requires the highest possible representation of our population. Every subsequent survey and study that intends to be statistically representative of the U.S. population will be built on decennial data, and any inaccuracies will be felt for at least a decade,” Almy said.

At the end of 2017, the Department of Justice asked the U.S. Census Bureau to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census questionnaire. The Insights Association had concerns about the proposal and joined with others in opposition.

According to the Census Bureau, the most expensive part of the decennial count is the door-to-door non-response follow-up. For the 2010 census, it cost $90 million more for every 1 percent of households that didn't respond up front.

“Marketing researchers know the expense of respondent cooperation better than most, as well as the potential downside of making any survey longer,” Almy continued. “Because of a lack of testing, the Census Bureau doesn’t know how much response will drop from legal or illegal immigrant communities, or other groups.”

While Congress just agreed to increase funding for the 2020 census, it was likely too late to help the Census Bureau replace already eliminated field tests in remote and rural hard-to-count communities, fueling concern about a potential rural undercount. The citizenship question controversy will fuel increased concerns about an urban undercount as well.

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The goal of adding the citizenship question, according to the Department of Justice, is to provide data about the citizenship voting age population at the census block level to improve compliance with and enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. According to the Department of Commerce, “Secretary Ross determined that obtaining complete and accurate information to meet this legitimate government purpose outweighed the limited potential adverse impacts.” The Commerce Department says that Secretary Ross talked to stakeholders the last few months, including Members of Congress, before finalizing the citizenship question addition (in a lengthy memo).

According to the Congressional Research Service, “The 1950 census was the last to date that collected citizenship data from the whole population, rather than a population sample.” After that, the “citizenship and/or related questions” were on the old census “long form” and now on the rolling annual American Community Survey (ACS) that replaced the long form.

The ACS’ citizenship question to be used on the 2020 questionnaire reads: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” The respondent then chooses one of the following:

  • “Yes, born in the United States”;
  • “Yes, born in Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or Northern Marianas”;
  • “Yes, born abroad of U.S. citizen parent or parents”;
  • “Yes, U.S. citizen by naturalization – Print year of naturalization”;
  • “No, not a U.S. citizen.”

UPDATE: The official submission of questions planned for the 2020 headcount and the ACS was submitted today.

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