Census Memo: Adding Citizenship Question Will Cost At Least $27.5M

on March 22, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America

An internal Census Bureau memo assessing the debate over adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census warned that doing so would be “very costly, harms the quality of the census count, and would use substantially less accurate citizenship status data than are available from administrative sources.”

The memo — sent to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in January 2018 by John M. Abowd, census chief scientist and associate director for research and methodology — said that his “conservative estimate” for the additional cost of adding the question was $27.5 million.

“Citizenship status is misreported at a very high rate for noncitizens, citizenship status is missing at a high rate for citizens and noncitizens due to reduced self-response and increased item nonresponse, nonresponse followup costs increase by at least $27.5M, erroneous enumerations increase, whole-person census imputations increase,” the memo said.

The memo was one of more than 1,000 pages of documents the Commerce Department released late Friday evening, as part of the lawsuits challenging the move to add the question, which was announced in March.

Critics of the move fear that it will discourage immigrant participation on the census. Such an undercount has major implications, because census data is used for redistricting, appropriating federal funding, and by the private sector for its own purposes.

Ross in his memo announcing the move cited a request by Justice Department that the question be added to produce data for Voting Rights Act enforcement. He also claimed that opponents of the question had failed to provide “evidence that there are residents who would respond accurately to a decennial census that did not contain a citizenship question but would not respond if it did.”

Civil rights groups opposing the move have responded to the claim by arguing that it is the government’s responsibility to determine what effects adding the question would have on the accuracy of the count. Their argument was backed by Hermann Habermann, the former deputy director and COO of the Census Bureau under the George W. Bush administration, who spoke on the phone with Ross in March, according to internal notes on the call released Friday.

“Mr. Habermann stated that he believed that asking a citizenship question on the Decennial Census would diminish response rates and degrade the quality of responses, but there is no data to support these beliefs or to quantify the expected response diminution rate,” the notes said. “Mr. Habermann stated that he believed the ‘burden of proof” for getting a question added to the Decennial Census is on the person who proposes it. Specifically, the proposing party should be required to demonstrate how the proposed question would not degrade the census.”

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