Rethinking America

US Census 2020: A Political Boomerang for Republicans?

Asking about citizenship status in the 2020 Census is dangerous and politically inept.

Credit: danielfela Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Including a question on citizenship status will discourage most of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants from filling out a Census form, lowering the population count of nearly every US state.
  • Tying the Census to law enforcement means some 24.3 million people would have good reason to skip the 2020 Census if they believe their names and addresses could be shared with law enforcement.
  • Failing to count any person or household harms everyone in that person’s or household’s community, since the community’s representation and access to federal funds are tied to its population.
  • Most of $800 billion per-year in public funds redistributed among US states based in part on Census numbers involve programs for low-income Americans, such as Medicaid, school lunches, and the S-CHIP program.
  • US federal law protects the confidentiality of the personal information collected in the US Census. But most people are not familiar with those provisions.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s recent decision to “reinstate” a question in the 2020 Census (it was last asked in 1950) that asks about one’s citizenship status will almost certainly vastly increase the number of people who either ignore or evade the 2020 U.S. Census.

The policy move will certainly discourage most of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants from filling out a Census form, with their names and addresses, and thus lower the official population count of nearly every U.S. state.

Ross defended his move by citing a request from Attorney General Jeff Sessions for help in enforcing the Voting Rights Act, tying the Census to law enforcement. As a result, a much larger number of people — some 24.3 million people — would have good reason to skip the 2020 Census if they believe their names and addresses could be shared with law enforcement.

A surprising effect

Moreover, because most of those additional people are not concentrated in the big blue states, and most of the federal funding tied to the Census involves programs for low-income people, like Medicaid, Section 8 housing assistance, and support for school lunches, the new Ross-Sessions policy would have a surprising effect.

It would target the cuts in federal funding to the 23 mainly solid Republican states with poverty rates above the national average.

U.S. federal law protects the confidentiality of the personal information collected in the U.S. Census in no uncertain terms. But most people are not familiar with those provisions, and millions of people will be very sensitive to any intimation that filling out their Census forms might help law enforcement officials locate them.

This includes many U.S. citizens, such as students in default on their federal loans, parents who owe back child support, anyone with an outstanding warrant and more.

Specifically, 43% of the 22 million Americans with federal student loans are in default or very behind in their payments. That covers about 9,460,000 young Americans.

If we assume, conservatively, that one-third of those in such payment arrears will opt for discretion and skip the 2020 Census, it comes to 3,120,000 people.

Student loans and child support arrears

One also has to realize that most of those in default or way behind in payments on their federal student loans live in households with people not in such arrears. If one assumes that half simply leave out the household member in arrears, that is another 1,560,000 for the undercount.

The Census Bureau also reports that in 2015, 48.4% — or almost half — of the 6,807,000 parents who had custody of their children did not receive their lawfully-awarded child support. Thus, 3,292,000 people were in arrears on their child support.

Local governments now routinely suspend the driver’s licenses of deadbeat dads (and moms), and sometimes jail those with long records of withholding child support payments.

It seems reasonable that two-thirds of those in such arrears (2,195,764 people) would forgo affixing their names and addresses to forms that they believe might be shared with law enforcement.

In this case, we would expect that most of their households would opt out with them, adding 5,577,241 people to the undercount.

Why care?

But why should we worry about counting people who entered America illegally, welched on their federal loans or are fugitives from justice? For starters, Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution mandates a decennial census of “the whole number of free persons,” not just citizens or commendable people.

A very substantive reason is that failing to count any person or household harms everyone in that person’s or household’s community, since the community’s representation and access to federal funds are tied to its population – not citizenship — numbers.

The Policy Could Boomerang on 14 Deep Red States

The damage from such an unprecedented undercount will not be distributed evenly or randomly across the states. Twelve states with disproportionately large undocumented populations will bear the greatest burden when it comes to losing seats in Congress.

They are led by Nevada, Texas, California, New Jersey, Arizona and Florida – three of those states voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and three voted for Hillary Clinton.

Most of $800 billion per-year in public funds redistributed among U.S. states based in part on Census numbers involve programs for low-income Americans, such as Medicaid, school lunches, and the S-CHIP program.

The distribution of those funds across the states is based on their shares of all poor households, so the states with the most at stake are those with above-average shares of poor people. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia had poverty rates above the national average of 13.7 percent over the years 2014 to 2016.

Ironically, only two of them (California and New Mexico) plus D.C. are Democratic states. The other 14 states facing serious cuts in federal funding are solidly Republican states, led by Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas.

So the Ross-Sessions Census policy could be a political boomerang for Donald Trump and the GOP.

Never 100% accurate or complete

To be sure, no U.S. Census, conducted every ten years, is ever 100% accurate or 100% complete. Certain groups are routinely undercounted for various reasons – mainly native Americans and poor minorities.

And the fact that undocumented immigrants or people with outstanding warrants are wary about participating is not new. But the Ross-Sessions Census policy is virtually guaranteed to greatly exacerbate those issues and lead to unprecedented undercounting across large parts of the country.

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About Robert J. Shapiro

Robert J. Shapiro is co-founder and chairman of Sonecon, LLC.

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