Public Policy

The 2020 Decennial Census: What’s in a Question?

The U. S. Census Bureau has already begun preparations for the 2020 Decennial Census. Although a routine undertaking since 1790, the process and its resulting population statistics are fundam
ental to our democratic system of governance. By definition the United States Census is a decennial census mandated by Article I, Section 2 of the United States Constitution, which states: “Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective Numbers.” Already the upcoming 2020 census is making headlines in the news. March 26, 2018, the Department of Justice reintroduced the question on citizenship status to the census questionnaire for the purpose of enforcing the Voting Rights Act. The citizenship question was omitted from the short form of the census from 1950 through 2010, only having been included on the long form sent to about 20% of the population from 1960 to 2000. In 2020 all respondents must declare whether or not they are American citizens. Why is this question creating such a stir? What might be the consequences for the State of Texas?

Of utmost importance are the population statistics collected by the Census which are used to define the boundaries of both federal and state legislative districts, as well as to determine how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding are dispersed. In brief, this critical count can diminish or increase the number of U. S. Congressional districts in each state. The more U. S. Representatives a state has, the more powerful its voice will be in Congress. According to law all inhabitants of a state, U. S. citizens and non-citizens, are to be included in the population count used to determine the number of Representatives (There are 435 Representatives in the U.S. Congress) and to determine the allocation of Federal funding for such areas as education, health care, housing, road construction and maintenance, and law enforcement.

Historically, low socio-economic groups have been more difficult to count, and even more worrisome is the suppressive effect on non-citizens, such as undocumented immigrants, who may refuse to respond for fear of being deported. In addition to the controversial citizenship question, there are concerns about adequate funding for the collection of Census data and about threats to cyber security of sensitive data. The 2020 Census is estimated to cost $15.6 billion dollars, more than $3.3 billion more than the original estimate, a very expensive undertaking for which accuracy is paramount. Wilbur Ross, Secretary of Commerce, is seeking the additional funds to assure that there are enough workers to produce an accurate count at a time when federal budget cuts are on the rise. For the first time the 2020 Census data will be reported almost exclusively online. Recent cyber attacks on government agency databases have raised concerns about the security and confidentiality of sensitive personal data. These two additional concerns could further depress participation in the census.

According to 2015 estimates, Texas continues to have the second-largest undocumented immigrant population in the country, about 1.5 to 1.7 million. Only California has more, at double the figure for Texas. In its 2016-2017statistics the Texas Education Agency reported that approximately 43% of the public school students in Texas qualified for low socio-economic status. These statistics suggest that Texas could stand to lose representation in Congress, even though an increase in the number of seats is anticipated based on population growth, and Federal funding could be significantly reduced as a result of undercounting the state’s low socio-economic and undocumented immigrant populations. Another difficulty in providing an accurate population count for Texas involves access to counties where some of the hardest-to-reach populations in the country live (Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York). Any factor or question which discourages participation in the taking of the census in Texas stands to hurt the state politically and economically.

In closing, here’s a little Census history. The first Census was conducted in 1790 when Thomas Jefferson was Secretary of State. The first questionnaire listed only the name of the head of household and a head count of the number of additional free white males and females and the number of slaves within that household, for a total of 5 questions, most devised by James Madison. Federal marshals conducted the first collection of population data verbally, taking notes on odd scraps of paper. In 1840 the government created the Census Bureau under the Department of Interior. The Census Bureau has since moved to the Department of Commerce. In 2010 the Census Bureau created a much shorter version of only 10 questions. To compensate for the loss of information on the long form, other statistical surveys are conducted throughout the decade for a certain percentage of the population. The Census Bureau website,, is a treasure trove of interesting facts. In particular the index of questions asked on each decennial questionnaire from 1790 onward is a fascinating journey through U.S. political and social history and highly recommended reading.

The controversies mentioned above are already apparent as preparations for the Census proceed. California has already filed suit to have the question on citizenship status removed from the 2020 Census. Again as informed citizens living in Texas, we need to remain alert to the possible disadvantageous consequences of inaccurate reporting and undercounting of population in the 2020 Census.

Martha Ewell, Public Policy Chair