American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
November/December 2018

ASA Files Amicus Brief Objecting to Inclusion of Citizenship Question in the 2020 Census

C. Matthew Snipp, Stanford University

In early November, the American Sociological Association, the American Statistical Association, and the Population Association of America filed an amicus curiae brief in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York supporting a challenge to the late addition of a citizenship question in the 2020 Census. 

In March of this year the Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that a question about citizenship would be added to the 2020 Census. The last-minute addition of the citizenship question is untested, ill-advised, and can be detrimental to future government planning. This action was in direct conflict with the Census Bureau’s standard protocol for the addition of new or modified questions in its data collection operations. That is, the Census Bureau has an extensive planning process for testing new and modified questions to ensure that they provide high quality data on the subjects for which they were intended. Although a citizenship question appears from time to time in the American Community Survey (ACS), a citizenship question was never included in the numerous tests conducted since the 2010 enumeration. It is important to understand that the ACS is conducted in ways that are fundamentally different than the decennial census. For example, the ACS is carried out with relatively little publicity while the 2020 census will deploy a massive advertising campaign.

It is also important to note that even in the ACS, the response rates for the citizenship question are less than stellar. In a 2014 test of ACS questions, the Census Bureau found that the item-nonresponse rate for the citizenship question was higher than for most of its basic demographic characteristic questions. The only questions with higher non-response rates than the citizenship question pertained to health and income characteristics. 

The brief emphasizes the importance of testing survey questions and clarifies that citizenship data are already available through other sources. “It is unprecedented in modern census taking to add a question at such a late point in the decennial process,” said Nancy Kidd, ASA Executive Director. “If the U.S. Department of Commerce fails to submit a question to rigorous testing, it fails to fulfill its constitutional mandate to produce an accurate count of the population. Further, there are existing data sources that can be used to measure citizenship, rendering this addition to the 2020 Census fundamentally unnecessary.”

The central argument contained in the brief is organized around two fundamental ideas. One is that the late addition of the citizenship question unnecessarily threatens the integrity of census data. In particular, it abandons the usual census pre-testing protocol. It also presents the risk that the 2020 census will be plagued with lower response rates, with incomplete and inaccurate information. The second point is that the late addition of the citizenship question unnecessarily endangers data that are of vital public importance for a variety of critical applications.

The vital importance stems from several considerations. First and foremost, the decennial census is mandated by the Constitution of the United States. It is the foundation of American democracy used for the determination of Congressional representation in the House of Representatives. Undercounting census numbers also threatens to weaken funding and create policy planning blind spots. Approximately $600 billion per year is redistributed to state and local governments using data derived from the decennial census. Countless social scientific applications also depend on the decennial census. For example, data from the census are often used to assess the representativeness of survey samples. The decennial census also provides the benchmark for estimating state and local population sizes in the years that the census is not taken.

The legal wrangling over the citizenship question continues unabated. Two lawsuits in California and one in Maryland raise the same objections as the lawsuit filed in New York. The law firm that filed the amicus brief on behalf of the ASA was invited by the attorneys in the California lawsuits to file the same amicus brief that was submitted to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. This was done November 20 and the attorneys are waiting for a request to file in the Maryland case. As of this writing, the New York case is going forward, and the Supreme Court has also agreed to hear arguments on the matter. 

A PDF of the amicus brief can be found at