Messing Up the Count

Social science groups say Trump administration is endangering the reliability of the Census -- and research that uses Census data -- by adding question on citizenship.

March 28, 2018

Social science groups were quick to condemn Monday’s announcement by the Trump administration that the 2020 U.S. Census will include a question on the citizenship status of those being counted.

Up until 1950, the question was typically included. And the U.S. Department of Commerce, which manages the Census, said the question would provide information sought by the Justice Department. Skeptics -- including many Democrats and advocates for immigrants -- believe the goal of the new question is to lead to smaller population counts in states with large immigrant populations.

Many social science academic groups also are concerned about the new question. First off, they note that past changes in Census questions have been tested in ways that the new question can’t be, for lack of time.

But of particular concern is that the question, social scientists say, will discourage immigrants -- with legal status or not -- from responding. Many immigrants fear any citizenship question is a prelude to a challenge to their right to be in the United States, or to the right of family members to be in the country. Social scientists say the Census would, with the new question, almost certainly undercount the total U.S. population -- and in particular that portion made up of immigrants.

Nancy Kidd, executive director of the American Sociological Association, said via email that the change announced Monday “is of deep concern for social scientists doing basic research on fundamental questions about American society -- from family to education to race -- and also for social scientists doing research to inform decisions in the public and private sectors.”

The Consortium of Social Science Associations issued a statement Tuesday that said, “It is simply too late in the cycle to contemplate adding a question to the Census. In the decade leading up to a decennial Census, the Census Bureau conducts years of rigorous research and testing to ensure that even the smallest changes to design and wording will not impact the accuracy of the responses received.”

Many academic groups joined a letter organized by civil rights group in January, when the idea was first floated, urging the Trump administration not to go ahead with adding the question.

Leaders of social science groups are appealing to Congress to block the addition of the question. But Republican congressional leaders may be unlikely to intervene. Some states are also planning to sue over the issue.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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