Trump’s controversial change to the 2020 Census could have massive political and economic consequences

Children with certificates of citizenship after becoming US citizens during a ceremony at the Bronx Zoo on May 5. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • The Commerce Department announced Monday that it would include a question regarding citizenship on the 2020 Census.
  • Many lawmakers and advocates worry the move could lead to an inaccurate count of immigrants in the US.
  • A statistically significant miscount in the census could hurt academic research, business decisions, and the federal allocation of funds.

The US Commerce Department announced Monday that the 2020 Census would include a new question on citizenship, a tweak that could send shockwaves through the world of politics and economics.

The department said the census would ask whether respondents are US citizens.

The Trump administration says the addition will help properly enforce the Voting Rights Act. But immigration advocates and many lawmakers expressed concern that it could undercount immigrants, particularly those in the US illegally, thus distorting the population count.

“An accurate count of everyone living in the United States is vital to our democracy,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Adding a question designed to depress participation in certain communities is an assault on the foundations of this country.”

The attorneys general of New York and California have already said they plan to sue the Trump administration to remove the question.

Beyond the legal question – the Constitution says the census should be an accurate count of people living in the US regardless of citizenship – any miscount could also have serious consequences for state agencies, economists, and academics.

Here’s a rundown of what the change could affect:

  • Congressional votes and districts: The census is used to determine the number of Electoral College votes and members of Congress for each state.
  • More than $US675 billion in federal fund distributions: According to a 2017 paper by Marisa Hotchkiss and Jessica Phelan of the Census Bureau, 132 federal programs appropriated a bit more than $US675 billion in 2015 primarily using data derived from the decennial census. Here are just a few federal programs that rely on census data to determine how much money to appropriate and whether the funding is being used correctly:

    • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as SNAP, or food stamps)
    • Highway planning and construction
    • Federal Pell Grant program
    • Special-education grants to states
    • School Breakfast Program
    • Crime-victim assistance
    • Rural Rental Assistance payments
    • Fire Management Assistance Grant
  • Federal and local policymaking: Federal and local politicians make policy decisions based in part on demographic data provided by the census. For instance, a city planner may use census data to determine the best location for a new school given a higher concentration of children moving into one area of the city. Emergency-response officials in South Florida also used the data to determine areas more vulnerable to major weather events.
  • Academic and economic research depends on census data: Researchers in a wide range of academic fields rely on the data to conduct their analyses, which often help form public policy.
  • Private business decisions:A 2015 review found that many businesses used census data to determine growth decisions, such as where to place new locations or offices. “The ACS is an important component of the information that businesses need to make decisions to help them run efficiently, hire wisely, and serve their customers’ needs,” the study said.