Thursday, June 13, 2019
Census Bureau rolls out field test of citizenship question while Supreme Court decision is still pending
These three questions about citizenship status have been at the center of a legal controversy that should soon be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. While everyone is waiting for the Supreme Court's decision, the U.S. Census Bureau is moving ahead to test out the question on 480,000 households. The forms are part of a last-minute, nine-week experiment the federal government is using to gauge how the public could react next year to census forms with the potential census question.
Households have been randomly selected to complete one of two versions of a test census form. Here is the form with the citizenship question; here is the form without it. The results of the 2019 field test will inform the bureau's upcoming advertising campaign for the 2020 census and plans for hiring people to visit households that don't respond to the census. Test participants would still have to complete forms for the actual head count next spring.
Is it unusual to conduct a field test so close to the anticipated census roll-out? Yes. While the bureau usually conducts similar field tests before making any changes to census forms, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, approved adding the question before the bureau could test it on a form with the planned 2020 census questions. As NPR writes, "the lack of testing was among the "smorgasbord" of administrative law violations that a federal judge in New York cited in his ruling to block plans for the question." Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House oversight subcommittee for the census, says it is "highly unusual" for the bureau to carry out this test so close to the official start of the national head count. The 2020 census is set to begin in January and most U.S. households can start participating in mid-March.
And is it unusual to have a field test running while a Supreme Court decision on inclusion of the question is still pending? Yes. The Supreme Court could rule that the 2020 census cannot include a citizenship question even while the Census Bureau continues asking households to complete test census forms with that question.
So why are they doing it? The bureau's spokeperson says the test will allow them to "fine-tune" its plans for the 2020 census. The official explanation from the agency is here. Others speculate the rushed field test indicates that the census bureau may be worried about the impact of the question on participation. Numerous studies have shown that "even small changes in survey question order, wording, and instructions can have significant, and often unexpected, consequences for the rate, quality, and truthfulness of response," six former Census Bureau directors wrote in a 2018 letter expressing concern about the citizenship question. Previously released research by the Census Bureau suggests the citizenship question is highly likely to scare households with noncitizens from taking part in the constitutionally mandated head count of every person living in the U.S. (Other studies are summarized in a prior immigrationprof blog post.)
Fears or no fears, community advocates advise immigrants to participate in the field test this fall and the official count next spring, regardless of whether it includes a citizenship questions. They cite to the many purposes of the census (and here): to set and evaluate immigration policies and laws, understand the experience of different immigrant groups, and enforce laws, policies, and regulations against discrimination based on national origin. These statistics also help tailor services to accommodate cultural differences.
They also emphasize that federal law prohibits the Census Bureau from releasing census responses identifying individuals until 72 years after they're collected. As the bureau says in a section about "privacy concerns": "We use your confidential survey answers to create statistics like those in the results below and in the full tables that contain all the data—no one is able to figure out your survey answers from the statistics we produce. The Census Bureau is legally bound to strict confidentiality requirements. Individual records are not shared with anyone, including federal agencies and law enforcement entities. By law, the Census Bureau cannot share respondents' answers with anyone—not the IRS, not the FBI, not the CIA, and not with any other government agency.