2020 Census: The decennial population count explained

Rather than adding a question to the 2020 Census, President Trump said he is issuing an executive order that will direct government agencies to provide citizenship data to the Commerce Department.

President Donald Trump announced on Thursday he will no longer seek to add a question about citizenship status to the 2020 Census.

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

The Supreme Court blocked the question in late June, dismissing the administration’s rationale for the question, but left the door open for officials to offer a new explanation.

Trump said he decided not to challenge the ruling because it would delay the Census, however, he plans to issue an executive order to obtain citizenship information. The president said the order will direct federal agencies to provide citizenship data to the Commerce Department.

"As a result of today’s executive order we will be able to ensure the 2020 Census generates an accurate count of how many citizens, non-citizens and illegal aliens are in the United States of America," Trump said at the White House.

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 and why did the administration add it?

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 feared it would scare immigrants from participating in the census, which would result in inaccurate population counts. Noncitizens comprise an estimated 7 percent of people living in the United States.

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 worried the question would 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.

The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled on June 27 that the federal government’s rationale for the question “seems to have been contrived” and stated the government had not given a reasoned explanation for its actions.

The Court blocked the question but sent the issue back to the Commerce Department to decide whether to provide a different rationale for the question.

Trump initially asked his lawyers if the Census could be delayed. However, the administration retreated on July 2, when the government announced that Census forms would be printed without the question.

“The Census Bureau has started the process of printing the decennial questionnaires without the question. My focus, and that of the bureau and the entire department, is to conduct a complete and accurate census,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement.

Trump then insisted that the administration was not backing down. 

“The News Reports about the Department of Commerce dropping its quest to put the Citizenship Question on the Census is incorrect or, to state it differently, FAKE!” the president tweeted. “We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question.”

A week later, he announced that the Census would move forward without the question. He then issued the executive order for government agencies to send all citizenship data to the Commerce Department.

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

Nicole Brown