Citizenship question threatens US census, says former programme chief

By on 16/01/2018 | Updated on 24/09/2020
A resident completes the US census in Houston, Texas (Image courtesy: Ron Bigler).

A former US census chief has warned that plans to include a question about people’s citizenship in the country’s 2020 national census is likely to depress response rates, damaging the quality of results.

“I do believe that it will seriously reduce the response rate to the census,” Kenneth Prewitt, who served as Census Bureau director from 1998 to 2001 and is now a professor at Columbia University, told Global Government Forum.

In a letter sent last month to US Census Bureau acting director Ron Jarmin, first reported by ProPublica, the Department of Justice formally requested that the decennial census ask respondents about their citizenship. This questionnaire, to be launched in April 2020, will be sent to all US households.

Skewed results

But critics say the citizenship question could lower response rates, and argue that it’s far too late in the game to add a question that’s not been field-tested.

They fear for the quality of data used to apportion seats for the U.S. House of Representatives, allocate billions of dollars in federal spending, and guide policy decisions at all levels of government.

In its letter, the justice department argued that an accurate count of the citizen population is needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act. But Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant and former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee, told Global Government Forum that – contrary to the Justice Department’s rationale – an inter-agency working group previously determined that American Community Survey (ACS) data was sufficient for voting rights enforcement.

She added that, by law, the Census Bureau cannot share personal information with other agencies – yet even before the DOJ’s request, focus groups had found an unprecedented levels of concern about risks to immigrants.

The US census tracks key demographic data, such as population growth (Image courtesy: US Census Bureau).

Counting the costs

Prewitt said threats to the 2020 Census go well beyond the immigration question, to the budget and leadership. Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross – who oversees the Census Bureau – recently told Congress the 2020 count will require $15.6 billion: $3.3 billion more than was estimated in 2015. Prewitt says the agency is still waiting for money to conduct a publicity campaign, and is suffering because US president Donald Trump has not named a successor to ex-bureau director John Thompson, who resigned in June.

The Government Accountability Office last year added the census to a list of high-risk projects, saying costs have escalated over the past several decades as response rates have fallen.

Lowenthal says there are also real and perceived cybersecurity threats to the 2020 census – the first that will allow respondents to complete questionnaires online.

The question of questions

A citizenship question has appeared in the census for decades, but from 1970 onwards only appeared on the long-form version of the questionnaire, sent to a small proportion of households. The bureau retained the item when it replaced the long form with the ACS, a questionnaire sent to about 3.5 million households each year.

Ross must present all census questions to Congress by March 31. But a clause in the federal code lets the secretary change questions later, if necessitated by new circumstances.

About Tamar Wilner

Tamar Wilner is a Dallas-based journalist and researcher who writes about public policy and the media. She's written extensively on energy, the environment, urban planning and small business for trade publications in the US and UK, and contributes regularly to the Columbia Journalism Review. Find her at @tamarwilner.


  1. Murphy Miller says:

    I’m not sure why Kenneth Prewitt believes response rates would be impacted, since no reason was given. Just because he “believes” something might happen doesn’t make it accurate.

    If someone is here illegally, then they should not be counted in the census. If they are counted, then states with the highest number of illegal immigrants would get more congressional representation. That is not fair to the remainder of US citizens. Non-citizens do not have the same rights as US citizens. That is no different than any other country.

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