SALT LAKE CITY — The last-minute addition of a citizenship question, lack of funding and ongoing uncertainty about federal immigration policy are all factors that could make the 2020 Census effort one of the toughest in years, according to experts and community leaders.
The impacts of a miscount could cascade down from federal political apportionments and program funding to some very local efforts like disbursement of city council seats and even which schools qualify for free lunch programs or help with child care programs.
In a phone conference with media representatives Tuesday, Terri Ann Lowenthal, former staff director for the U.S. House of Representatives Census and Population Subcommittee and consultant to the Leadership Conference Education Fund, said the combination of issues lining up ahead of the decennial census effort were creating a formidable challenge.
"This census is facing an uprecedented confluence of factors that I think could create a perfect storm in 2020," Lowenthal said. "There has been inadequate and delayed funding over the course of most of this (10-year) census planning cycle that has caused the Census Bureau to delay or cut back or even eliminate some really important research and testing opportunities. There is both the climate of fear … that predated the new citizenship question, the anti-immigrant fear in many communities and other communities that are just skeptical of government. And those communities, too, will be hard to count."
Lowenthal noted that the citizenship question, added by U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross last month at the request of the U.S. Department of Justice, was an "untested question added to the form that has not gone through the rigorous, multiyear, iterative research and testing process" typical of additions or changes to census inquiries.
The citizenship question has not been a part of the general census questionnaire since 1950, though it has been part of more targeted efforts the agency carries out, like the American Community Survey data gathering, which goes out to about 3 million U.S. households out of the total 120 million households nationwide.
Maria Montes, advocacy program coordinator for Comunidades Unidas, a nonprofit advocacy group for Utah's Latino population, said the decision to bring the question back will have serve only to suppress census participation in Utah's Hispanic community, regardless of the respondents' immigration status.
"We are extremely concerned about the fact that the question is being put back in the census," Montes said. "It will make it nearly impossible for community members to step forward and participate.
"We are very concerned, especially as we think about how that lack of participation will impact long-term changes in policy, not just for our immigrant community but all of Utah."
Montes said her organization has already been working to overcome challenges created by uncertainty about shifting federal immigration policies she said began following the election of President Donald Trump.
"We actually began experiencing the impacts of fear in the community after the turnover of the administration," Montes said. "Community members started having a lot of difficulty coming forward about issues, even to us, and we've been working with the community for 20 years."
Community fears not withstanding, the work of the U.S. Census Bureau is governed by Title 13 of U.S. Code. Under Title 13 rules, information gathered through the census effort is protected and, according to information published by the bureau, "It is against the law to disclose or publish any private information that identifies an individual or business such, including names, addresses (including GPS coordinates), Social Security numbers and telephone numbers."
Individuals involved in data collection and analysis are sworn to lifelong secrecy and, if they breach that oath, can be subject to severe criminal penalties that include the potential of a $250,000 fine or five years of federal imprisonment, or both.
Pam Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, noted the influx of immigrants, or new Americans, has been a primary driver of Utah's burgeoning population expansion over the past few decades.
"If you look at the state of Utah as a whole, from 1990 to 2010 we added about 1 million new people," Perlich said. "Of that million about half, 500,000, were in-migrants and their children. And just less than one-half of those new people who moved to the state were foreign born."
Perlich said a recent census funding allocation, part of the omnibus spending bill passed by Congress in March, included an extra $1 billion for work related to the count, which was a good thing, but the funding cycle up until then had been lagging.
"Just because they've infused the process with more funding now, it's been very underfunded compared to previous censuses," Perlich said. "Complete funding is not going to come from the Census Bureau … state and local governments, as well as non-profits, will need to help."
Perlich said the populations that are most difficult to count in Utah — rural residents, tribal communities, new Americans, those living in poverty, the elderly and the homeless — are likely the same ones that may be most intimidated by the new citizenship question. Perlich agreed with Montes that the current realm of uneasiness about immigration issues will contribute to negative impacts on the census effort.
"It's not just people who have documentation issues," Perlich said. "With the current administration, and the uncertainty about their actions, anyone who has come as an immigrant, even with refugee status or legally, is exposed to anti-immigrant fervor and unpredictability."
There is also a multiplier effect that can come into play when people begin to dodge census participation due to concerns over their immigration status, Perlich said.
"There are situations where you might have a family, but just one person has a documentation issue," Perlich said. "Say, dad is undocumented, but mom is here legally and the two kids are citizens. They avoid the census due to fears about the dad's status, but then we lose the whole family in the count."
That miscount potential can influence a lot of downstream outcomes. Perlich noted information gathered via the census becomes the basis upon which myriad decisions are made. That, of course, in addition to the manifest political impacts, like redistricting, political office apportionment.
"Just in Utah, hundreds of millions of dollars in funding pivots from per-capita data," Perlich said. "There are so many community efforts, social services, nutrition programs, medical care, the redistribution of sales tax revenues … so many formulas tied to this information."
There's also a concern for research integrity and critical information that allows agencies, government and non-government alike, to plan for a better — and in some cases, safer — future for everyone, Perlich said. Under-enumeration can skew data on things like crime statistics, birth and death rate, spread of communicable disease, migration patterns, biomedical research and more.
While places like California, which has one of the most significant immigrant populations in the country, have already taken legal action in response to the citizenship question, Perlich believes Utah has the right leadership and track record to weather the challenges of the census issues.22 comments on this story
"Given the state's history on things like the Utah Compact and the general political leadership around welcoming immigrants, as well as the recognition of how important our global interconnectedness is to our economy and so many other areas, I believe the help will come," Perlich said. "I do believe state and local leadership will recognize this is a big deal and we need to bring resources to the table and help standup a statewide, community outreach effort."
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the makeup of Utah's population influx from 1990-2010. It stated that 500,000 were foreign-born, and their children. The 500,000 were in-migrants and their children, and a little less than half of those who moved to the state were foreign-born.