PERSPECTIVE: Don’t Undermine the 2020 Decennial Census and Jeopardize Federal Funding

by Michelle Riordan-Nold The Connecticut Data Collaborative, on its monthly open data calls, has provided updates on data in the news. The biggest newsmaker by far has been Census 2020. Besides the challenges the Census Bureau has faced in maintaining their federal funding and finding new leadership, a recent ruling has put the accuracy of the Census 2020 count in jeopardy.

Several months ago, the Justice Department made a request that a question on citizenship be included in the Census 2020 count. Advocates raised concerns immediately about the possibility that a question on citizenship could impact whether people respond to the Census survey, but that question has been approved for inclusion in the upcoming count by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, despite grave concerns expressed by career civil servants working at the Census Bureau.

The Justice Department argues that the citizenship question would allow the agency to better enforce Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which bars the dilution of minority voting power through redistricting. The letter states, "to fully enforce those requirements, the department needs a reliable calculation of the citizen voting-age population in localities where voting rights violation are alleged or suspected." However, these data are collected every year in the American Community Survey and therefore are not necessary to fulfill the requirements of Section 2. The last time the immigration question was asked in a decennial census was in 1950.

Advocates are rightly concerned about the impact on the count that a citizenship question could exert.  In a November presentation by the Census Bureau, an official cited numerous examples of respondents expressing concern about the confidentiality of the data related to immigration.

The question on citizenship will not be field tested, which means there is no way to know in advance whether people will choose not respond. The Census Bureau has been finalizing and field testing questions for over a year and the only end-to-end field test is already underway in Rhode Island. Not knowing whether the citizenship question will impact response rates has two important consequences: the non-response follow-up and the undercount.

The most costly piece of the Census work is in non-response follow-up work--this is the work that Census field employees do when they go out to meet with residents and work with them to complete their census surveys. The Census budget is insufficient to conduct extensive non-response follow-up work and will result in lower funding for other Census programs such as the American Community Survey, which provides town level data for Connecticut.

The undercount has serious consequences for our country and our state.

Our immigrant residents are concentrated in major metropolitan areas--these areas are typically dependent on the federal government for crucial funding for health and human services. A question about citizenship in the current political climate could be seen as a threat in many communities. If residents choose not to respond to the survey, we could see an undercount. The decennial census population counts are used to determine legislative redistricting as well as federal funding for health and human services programs, and thus will remain in place for ten years.

Based on decennial Census counts, in Federal Fiscal year 2015, Connecticut received $8 billion in federal funds for the top 16 programs. The five largest funds that distribute aid based on decennial-census derived estimates are:

  • Medicaid
  • Medicare Part B - (Supplemental Medical Insurance) Physicians Fee Schedule Services
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Highway planning and construction
  • Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers  (source: The George Washington Institute of Public Policy)

An undercount could have serious fiscal implications to our state, which is already in a fiscal crisis.

However, states are joining forces to oppose this decision. At the beginning of the month, Connecticut joined a coalition of attorneys general, cities and the bipartisan U.S. Conference of Mayors in filing a lawsuit seeking to block the Trump Administration from demanding citizenship information in the 2020 decennial Census, according to an announcement by Attorney General George Jepsen and Secretary of the State Denise Merrill.

Good, reliable data are needed for fair provision of federal resources. Proceeding with a citizenship question without fully understanding the impact and implications it would have on the count – and the program funding that flows from it – puts the integrity of the census count, and the fair and accurate distribution of millions of dollars in doubt.


Michelle Riordan-Nold is Executive Director of the Connecticut Data Collaborative. She is responsible for executing the vision and strategy of the Collaborative which seeks to democratize access to public data, facilitate data-driven decision making, and build data literacy. In leading the Collaborative, she seeks to increase the use of public open data and grow the community of users across the state. The organization’s monthly open data calls  updates data users and provides opportunities to collectively impact change in the use of and access to public data.