Citizenship Question for 2020 Census a Problem

State governments and advocacy groups have been protesting the proposed inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 census in response to a Department of Justice (DOJ) request on the grounds that it will help DOJ better enforce the Voting Rights Act.  The concern of advocacy groups and others is that non-citizens will not respond to the census, causing an undercount that would impact everything from Congressional representation to the distribution of government funds.

On Monday evening the Secretary of Commerce issued a press release and a memorandum ( )   to DOJ, granting its request. The Secretary argued that experience with the annual American Community Survey, that still includes the citizenship question, did not show a sufficient non-response to justify not including the question in the 2020 census. Persons knowledgeable about the decennial census have said that the only Constitutionally mandated requirement of the census is to get a count of the number of persons in each state.  So questions likely to result in undercounts will cause the census to fail at its most basic purpose.  Those opposing the decision have argued that adding in the citizen question is a politically driven decision, designed to shift representation from high immigrant states (like California—who filed suit the first full day after the announcement) to lower immigrant (and likely “redder”) states.  In addition, the environment today and the environment likely in 2020, in which the census responses will be written, is one of fear fueled by the aggressive deportations of hard-working immigrants with no criminal records.

Why Should Nonprofits Care?

Most non-profits are serving people who are the beneficiaries of certain types of government assistance.  Whether it is rental assistance, home heating assistance, or Medicaid, these programs are funded in proportion to the state’s population of persons within certain low-income categories. The Medicaid match that the federal government provides to states is based on decennial census information. Thus an undercount will have direct consequences on persons in need in your service area. A Census Bureau paper “finds that 132 programs used Census Bureau data to distribute more than $675 billion in funds during fiscal year 2015.[i]

Not only are the benefits that your clients received impacted by the census, but the funding YOU get to run your non-profit may be impacted as well. For example, funding for legal services programs is updated based on the census.  CSBG dollars distributed by Community Action Agencies are census driven.

The next stop is Congress.  The Commerce Secretary issued his decision now because by law Congress must be informed of the questions in the upcoming census by March 31, 2018.  And we will await unfolding of the legal challenges.



[i] Hotchkiss, M., Phelan, J. Uses of Census Bureau Data in Federal Funds Distribution, A New Design for the 21st Century (U.S. Census Bureau, September 2017)