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Experts Say Census Citizenship Question Would Stifle Response

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The Department Of Justice wants a question about citizenship included in the 2020 Census. But some believe the addition could negatively affect response rates.

The decennial census asks demographic information including age, sex, race and ethnicity.

“The census is just a count of where people are and how many people there are,” said Matthew Ruther, director of the Kentucky State Data Center. “So we don’t ask many questions that are sensitive like this."

For example, Ruther said, the census rarely asks about religion and never asks about sexual identity.

“Historically, you don’t want to scare off these populations that are difficult to count,” he said.

There are an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States; an estimated 50,000 live in Kentucky. But because undocumented residents are difficult to count — it's especially hard to figure out where they may be living — that number is not necessarily definite, said Ruther. 

The U.S. Census Bureau has asked about citizenship in the past and does so now through the American Community Survey, formally the "long form" census. The long form census was not sent to every household and was removed from distribution after the 2000 Census.

Ruther said to add a question about citizenship is unnecessary.

“The Constitution doesn’t indicate that only citizens are to be counted, it’s residents that are to be counted,” he said. “There’s no compelling reason to ask about citizenship status.”

About$600 billion a year in federal money is distributed to state and local governments for services related to health, education, transportation and economic development. And population data from the census is used to determine where that money goes. Ruther said not having an accurate count could negatively affect certain communities that rely on those funds. 

“If you miss say, 1,000 people in your city,” he said, “that’s a large amount of money that you’re going to be leaving under the table.”

Ryan Eller is executive director of the nonprofit group Define American. He said adding a question about citizenship to the 2020 census wouldn't just affect the response rate of undocumented individuals, he believes it would also affect mixed-status families, or families with undocumented members.

“If they are fearful that this data is going to be misused they just won’t participate,” said Eller. “And I think that’s what we want to try to prevent because that goes against the very goal of the census, which is meant to be an accurate count of the population.”

And for the first time, the upcoming census will be conducted largely online. Eller said that also brings up issues related to equal access. 

“While that may provide greater access for some folk, there is a digital divide that creates an additional hurdle for some communities,” said Eller. “And certainly that’s true in poor and rural communities, which we have a lot here in Kentucky. It’s also true for immigrant communities.”

Roxanne Scott covers education for WFPL News.