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2020 Census: The decennial population count explained

The addition of a question about citizenship has been challenged by multiple states.

The 2020 Census may feature a question about

The 2020 Census may feature a question about citizenship for the first time in decades. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Spencer Platt

The 2020 Census has come under additional scrutiny this year with a legal battle over whether the Trump administration can add a question about citizenship status.

Though the constitutionally mandated count of the country’s population happens every 10 years, there hasn’t been a question about citizenship since 1950.

Scroll down to find out more about the census and the controversy over the immigration question.

Why do we have a census?

The census data determines the number of seats each state gets in the House of Representatives and the distribution of billions of dollars of federal funding.

The first census was conducted in 1790.

How is the data collected?

Most households will get a mailed invitation from the U.S. Census Bureau to complete the census questionnaire, according to the bureau’s 2020 Census Operational Plan, issued in December 2018. Residents will be able to answer the questions online for the first time. 

For people who aren’t able to complete the census online, the bureau will send a paper questionnaire that can be completed and mailed back. Another option will be to call a toll-free number and complete the questions over the phone. 

If households do not respond in any of those ways, there will be an attempt to reach them, which could be in person, if necessary.

The bureau also will have an advertising campaign to encourage everyone to participate in the census.

What if I don’t live in the same place all the time?

The Census Bureau asks for each person’s “usual residence,” which is defined as “the place where a person lives and sleeps most of the time." 

What is the contested citizen question?

In March 2018, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that a question about citizenship would be added to the 2020 Census. The question asks, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”

The addition of the question was immediately challenged by civil rights groups and multiple states, including New York. Critics of the question fear it will scare immigrants from participating in the census, which will result in inaccurate population counts. Noncitizens comprise an estimated 7 percent of people living in the United States.

Two judges have blocked the addition of the question, but the case is set to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on April 23. The court will consider if the administration followed the correct process to add the question and if adding it violated the Constitution.

A ruling is expected by the end of June, before the census forms are printed.

Why did the administration add the question?

At a congressional hearing earlier in March, Ross insisted that the question was aimed at bolstering the Voting Rights Act.

“Obtaining complete and accurate information for use in determining citizen age voting populations to enforce the Voting Rights Act is a legitimate government purpose,” he said in written comments submitted to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

But Democrats, who worry the question will discourage immigrants from participating, disputed that rationale.

“I do not know anyone who believes that the Trump administration is interested in enhancing the Voting Rights Act,” chairman Elijah Cummings said, adding: “The administration has done everything in its power to suppress the vote.”

They have accused the administration of trying to engineer an undercount of the true population and diminish the electoral representation of Democratic-leaning communities in Congress.

What are the other questions?

The other questions on the census ask about age, race, sex and homeownership. They include the following:

  • What is this person's age and what is this person's date of birth?
  • Is this person of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?
  • What is this person's race?
  • What is this person's sex?
  • Is this house, apartment or mobile home owned by you or someone in this household with a mortgage or loan; owned by you or someone in this household free and clear; rented; or occupied without payment of rent?
  • How many people were living or staying in this house, apartment, or mobile home on April 1, 2020?

With Reuters


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