Census 2020 – A Citizenship Question?

The 2020 Census is already creating controversy. Find ways to help your students understand the census, potential changes, and how past changes have impacted our history with this week’s CLP Current Event!

Brought to teachers by Susie Marcus, CLP consultant, with CLP staff.


News Sources

Why it’s perfectly okay to ask about citizenship status on the census, by Lyman Stone, Vox, April 5, 2018
“But private sector survey companies have tested the addition of sensitive questions related to immigration status and found that they did not change response rates. More broadly, what research the Census Bureau has done suggests that nonresponse to surveys has very little to do with specific questions (most people have no idea what they will be asked in a survey), and everything to do with broad attitudes toward the government.”

What to know about the citizenship question the Census Bureau is planning to ask in 2020, by D’Vera Cohn, Pew Research Center, March 30, 2018
“The Justice Department sought to include the question because it uses data about eligible voters – the citizen voting-age population – to help enforce protections for minority voters (including those who speak languages other than English) under the federal Voting Rights Act. The Justice Department now relies on data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, a sample survey that covers 2.6% of the population each year. The department wants more “scope, detail and certainty” that only the full census can provide to enforce the Voting Rights Act, Ross said.”

Faith groups condemn citizenship question on US census, by Jack Jenkins, Religion News Service, March 28, 2018
“Citing both moral imperatives and concerns about accuracy, religious groups are speaking out against a new citizenship question slated to be included in the 2020 U.S. census.”

What you need to know about the Census’ citizenship question, by Miriam Valverde, Politifact, March 28, 2018
“U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced on March 26 that the 2020 Census will inquire about citizenship, based on a request from the U.S. Justice Department. The department said the data is critical for its enforcement of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discriminatory voting practices or procedures. Congress delegates the Commerce secretary the authority to determine which questions will be asked on the decennial census.”

The citizenship question on the 2020 census, explained, by Dara Lind, Vox, March 28, 2018
“The government’s justification for the question sounds simple enough: Asking about citizenship will provide more information about who is in the United States, and more information is always good.”

The Census Will Add a Citizenship Question. What Happens Next?, by Kriston Capps, City Labs, March 27, 2018
“Testing a change to the census questionnaire can take months or years, work that flows through the Federal Interagency Council on Statistical Policy, which is co-chaired by the director of the Census Bureau and the U.S. chief statistician (a post within the Office of Management and Budget).
For example, in recent years the Census Bureau looked at the possibility of dissolving questions about race and ethnicity as distinct items. That process took two years and resulted in no change.”

The Controversial Question DOJ Wants to Add to the U.S. Census, by Priscilla Alvarez, The Atlantic, January 10, 2018
“The census is used for allocating nearly $700 billion a year in federal money, electoral votes, as well as for the apportionment of House districts—that is, deciding how many representatives a state sends to Congress each year. The Census Act requires that all questions asked on the census fulfill a purpose.”

Trump Justice Department Pushes for Citizenship Question on Census, Alarming Experts, by Justin Elliott, ProPublica, December 29, 2017
“The law governing the census gives the commerce secretary, currently Wilbur Ross, the power to decide on questions. They must be submitted to Congress for review two years before the census, in this case by April 2018. A census spokesperson said the agency will also release the questions publicly at that time.”


Questions to Consider

  • What is a census?
  • What is the history of the census in American history?
  • What information does a census provide?
  • How do census numbers affect legislative districts? How do census numbers affect allocation of funds?
  • Should a citizenship question be included on the 2020 Census? Why or why not?
  • Will a citizenship question on the Census provide better data on the voting age population to help enforce the Voting Rights Act?
  • Why do we want to count as many people as possible?
  • Which government agency supervises the Census?
  • Why is privacy an important consideration in the Census? What are the risks that information will be used adversely by the government?
  • Does a politically polarized country affect the success of the Census? How is immigration related to the Census?
  • What is the American Community Survey? How does it update information between the decennial Censuses?
  • Why are 12 states suing to block the Trump administration from adding a question about citizenship to the 2020 census?
  • What did Attorney General Maura Healey of Massachusetts say about the new census question?
  • Way are some people opposed to the new question, according to the article?
  • What is the Trump administration’s rationale for adding the question?
  • What details does the article give about the history of asking residents if they are citizens? What does the article say about the timing of the added question? *
  • What does Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York attorney general, mean when he says adding the new question “will create an environment of fear and distrust in immigrant communities that would make impossible both an accurate census and the fair distribution of federal tax dollars”? Why?*
  • Why did Kenneth Prewitt, a director of the Census Bureau under President Bill Clinton and now a professor of public affairs at Columbia University, dismiss the administration’s rationale that the question is needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act by saying, “It’s certainly unnecessary”?*
  • Do you think the citizenship question is necessary for the 2020 census and why?*
  • Do you think some people will ignore the citizenship question on the census or refuse to fill the census out completely? Why?*
  • What do you think will happen if the 2020 census data reflects an undercount of the population of the United States, and why do you think so?*
  • What do you think is the best way to get a fair and accurate count of the people living in the United States and why?*


Background and More

Census Bureau will ask questions that helped send Japanese-Americans to internment camps during WWII in 2020 population count, by Megan Cerullo, NY Daily News, April 4, 2018
But census officials secretly provided the government with information from the 1940 Census that was used to target Japanese Americans during World War II. The data was used to banish 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps in 1941, according to former commerce secretary Norman Mineta, The Washington Post reported.

Text of December 2017 DOJ letter to Census

U.S. Census Bureau

About the American Community Survey
CLP: This is the survey that provides up to date information between the Census count.


Lesson Plans

Census Question Controversy, Anti-Defamation League
CLP: Middle and high school

Teaching Activities for: ‘At Least Twelve States to Sue Trump Administration Over Census Citizenship Question’, Caroline Crosson Gilpin, The New York Times, March 29, 2018

Census – the Constitutional Count, by Emily Wood,
CLP: 3-5th grades


Constitutional and Legal Connections

Constitutional Topic: The Census


Oregon & the Northwest

Oregon Joins Suit To Block Immigration Inquiries on 2020 Census
“Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum says a move to include a question about citizenship on the 2020 census could wreak financial havoc on Oregon.
Rosenblum joined officials from 16 other states Tuesday in filing a lawsuit to block what they call an “unconstitutional and arbitrary decision” by the White House. “


Oregon State Social Science Standards

8.8 Evaluate information from a variety of sources and perspectives.
8.14 Explain rights and responsibilities of citizens.
8.18 Examine and analyze important United States documents, including (butnot limited to) the Constitution, Bill of Rights, 13-15th Amendments.
8.21 Analyze important political and ethical values such as freedom, democracy, equality, and justice embodied in documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
8.26 Examine a controversial event, issue, or problem from more than one perspective.
8.27 Examine the various characteristics, causes, and effects of an event, issue, or problem.
8.28 Investigate a response or solution to an issue or problem and support or oppose, using research.
HS.1 Evaluate continuity and change over the course of world and United States history.
HS.2 Analyze the complexity and investigate causes and effects of significant events in world, U.S., and Oregon history.
HS.9 Identify historical and current events, issues, and problems when national interests and global interest have been in conflict, and analyze the values and arguments on both sides of the conflict.
HS.27 Examine functions an process of United Sates government.
HS.33 Explain the role of government in various current events.
HS. 34 Explain the responsibilities of citizens (e.g., vote, pay taxes).
HS.57 Define, research, and explain an event, issue, problem or phenomenon and its significance to society.
HS.58 Gather, analyze, use and document information from various sources, distinguishing facts, opinions, inferences, biases, stereotypes, and persuasive appeals.
HS.59 Demonstrate the skills and dispositions needed to be a critical consumer of information.
HS.60. Analyze an event, issue, problem, or phenomenon from varied or opposing perspectives or points of view.
HS.61 Analyze an event, issue, problem, or phenomenon, identifying characteristics, influences, causes, and both short- and long-term effects.
HS.63. Engage in informed and respectful deliberation and discussion of issues, events, and ideas.


We the People Lesson Connections

Middle School, Level 2

  • Unit 6, Lesson 29: What are the rights and responsibilities of citizenship?

High School, Level 3

  • Unit 6, Lesson 34: What is the importance of civic engagement to American constitutional democracy?
  • Unit 6, Lesson 37: What key challenges does the United States face in the future?