Michael Meeropol: The Damage Done By The New Census Question

Apr 6, 2018

So the Department of Commerce has decided to add a question about citizenship to the Census short form. A number of states have either sued or threatened to sue arguing that this is in contradiction to the whole point of the census as stated explicitly in the Constitution.

[See, for example, Samantha Schmidt “California, NY sue Trump administration over addition of citizenship question to census” The Washington Post, March 27, 2018. ]

What’s this all about?

Let’s start with the Constitution – Article One, Section Two says in part:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years,…

The language may be a bit off-putting. The reference to “free persons” is there because when the Constitution was adopted the nation permitted slavery. “…those bound to Service for a Term of Years” refers to what were called “indentured servants.” Usually they were people who had had their passage over the ocean paid for by a future employer and they had to “work off” their debt by being “servants” to their benefactors for a fixed term of years. Those people, unlike slaves were to be counted as “whole people” for the purpose of deciding how many members of the House of Representatives that state would receive. “Indians not taxed” were not counted towards the population for the purposes of apportioning representation. (Indians did not become citizens until 1924.) Finally, the famous “three-fifths” rule was in place for slaves—the “all other Persons” in the language of the Constitution. The reason for this rule is instructive. Southern states where the slave population was concentrated would have had much greater representation in the House of Representatives if those numbers were determined by counting every slave as if he or she were free. Northern states will few if any slaves wanted them not to count at all but the compromise went towards the Southern states which got slaves to count as three-fifths rather than (say) half for the purposes of assigning representation.

The most important words today, since there is no more slavery, Indians are all citizens (therefore “taxed”), and indentured servitude is illegal are “whole number of free persons.” Note what this does NOT say. It does not say the number of citizens. It does not say the number of people eligible to vote. The Constitution mandates a COMPLETE COUNT of all people.

First of all, let’s dispense with the first lie told by press spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders --- that the citizenship question has been asked in every census since 1965. In fact, the citizenship question has not been on the short form --- the form EVERYONE has to fill out – since 1950. Between 1965 and 2000, a LONG FORM was mailed to about 20% of American families and that form had a citizenship question on it. However, beginning with the 2010 census, the long form was discontinued and a survey instead was conducted every year --- reaching about 3 percent of all Americans annually.

[For details, see, David Emery, “When Did the United States Census Stop Asking About Citizenship?" (April 2, 2018)]

Thus, Sanders is being very misleading. Every year less than 3 percent of American families have been asked about citizenship status since the long form was discontinued.

Now let’s get to lie number two: that a question about citizenship status is somehow essential in helping the Justice Department enforce the Voting Rights Act. What a pile of garbage. First of all, the government has NEVER had a problem using the long form or (since 2000) the survey to make decisions about the population of eligible voters. Second, and much more important, this administration is totally uninterested in enforcing the voting rights act. In fact, its main interest in voting is to suppress a non-existent “epidemic” of so-called voter fraud.

The real reason the Trump Administration wants to make everyone declare whether or not he or she is a citizen is because it is a useful way of intimidating certain groups into failing to participate. When people fail to participate, there is an UNDERCOUNT. This has a tremendous impact on states and counties where the undercount is significant. Any undocumented resident as well as legal residents with family members who are undocumented will have strong incentives not to participate. Even when this question had not been asked on the short form, there was always a problem of undercounting certain groups, particularly ethnic minorities. Adding this question will act as a red flag --- driving up the undercount. This fits the Republican playbook of using voter suppression to counter the demographic time bomb that their anti-women, anti-immigrant, anti-progress programs have created against them. In the near term, the undercount may help Republicans anxious to reduce the number of Congressional seats (and therefore electoral votes) in states like California, Oregon and Colorado. (However, it will bite them in states like Texas and Florida.)

The New York Times recently ran an article arguing that many decisions at the federal level require an accurate census count.

[See Jim Tankersley and Emily Baumbaertner, “Far-Reaching Effects Of an Accurate Count” The New York Times (March 28, 2018): A16. This article is available online as “Here’s Why an Accurate Census Count Is So Important”.]

These decisions are not restricted to representation in the House of Representatives and therefore the number of electoral votes. For example, I am someone who has done research into the economic realities affecting the US population, and I can attest to the fact that the census bureau is the source of a great deal of important economic data.

In 2015, over one hundred and thirty government programs used census information to allocate $675 billion for Head Start, Medicare, food stamps, Pell grants for college and school lunch programs. Also, highway spending is allocated using census data. Businesses use census data to determine where to locate distribution centers and where to construct new outlets. Customers are customers, whether citizens or not.

The Times article concludes with a warning that even the Social Security system will be at risk from a significant undercount. “When Congress plans for the costs of … Social Security … [they] rely upon demographic projection about the population’s future: the number of children expected to be born, the number of people expected to die, and the number of people expected to immigrate. If baseline data regarding the current population are inaccurate, future projections could be skewed causing financial challenges down the line.”

The Department of Commerce’s decision will reduce the accuracy of the census count by driving up the undercount of particular groups – particularly Latinos, one of the fastest growing demographics in the country.

But more to the point – the language of the Constitution is clear. The goal of the census is to count EVERYONE --- not just citizens. I certainly hope that the lawsuits filed by the Attorneys General of California and other states are successful. However, it would be excellent for us the people to respond with anger in opposition to the Trump Administration’s blatant attempt to drive down participation in the 2020 census.

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author (with Howard Sherman) of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies.

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