Every 10 years, the government conducts a Census of people living in the USA. And every 10 years, at least in recent memory, there is controversy.
In prior decades, battles have been waged over whether the Census invades privacy and whether its final numbers should be adjusted to account for people who refuse to take part. But the controversy surrounding the 2020 Census makes previous ones look tame.
At issue is whether the Census Bureau should honor a request from the Justice Department that all forms and Census takers ask whether each member of every household is a U.S. citizen.
OPPOSING VIEW: Hostility to this Census question is overblown
The simple answer is: It should not. In an era when immigrants are already and understandably fearful of government, the question would drive down compliance and drive up the cost of the count. The change could so undermine the Census that a future Congress could reject it, throwing the redrawing of congressional districts into turmoil.
The Trump administration, for its part, insists its request is fairly routine and reflects a desire for data that could assist in civil rights cases.
To be sure, some of the opposition to the request is a bit overwrought. The question has been asked before on a limited basis, and continues to be included in the American Community Survey (ACS), an annual survey of more than 3 million households. The responses are confidential.
Even so, the administration’s protestations bring to mind the ridiculous case that President Trump initially made for firing FBI Director James Comey — that he had to do it because Comey had not been fair to Hillary Clinton. The Trump administration is hardly a champion of civil rights cases and wouldn’t need citizenship data on a house-by-house basis even if it were.
Any census involves a difficult balance. Too many questions, particularly intrusive ones, means fewer people completing the form. That, in turn, increases the Census’ already hefty cost because Census-takers need to knock on more doors. And if people still refrain from participating, it would mean a less accurate count.
For these reasons, the Census Bureau keeps its standard form mercifully short. In 2010, it asked for the ages, genders and ethnicities of each person in a household, and whether his or her home was owned or rented.
The most sensitive questions — dealing with such things as citizenship, income, whether people have health insurance and whether their kids are adopted or biological — are relegated to the ACS. It is hard enough getting answers to these questions from more than 3 million households.
The government, moreover, doesn’t need citizenship data in more detail than it already gets through the ACS. The Supreme Court has ruled that political districts are to be drawn according to their number of residents, not their number of citizens. And federal spending on roads, law enforcement and other services follows similar logic.
Why does the administration want to ask the citizenship of every person in every home in America? The only plausible explanation is that it wants to depress participation among immigrant groups. That’s not a very good answer.
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