The Cost of the Citizenship Question

As the debate over adding the citizenship question to the 2020 census rages on, concerns over the effects of an undercount remain. According to a study by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, including the citizenship question, which would specifically ask participants about their citizenship status and birthplace, would lead to an undercount of 6 million Hispanics, or about 12 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population.

The Washington Post worked with those who produced the Harvard study to estimate where the citizenship question would have the greatest impact. California and Texas would be the most impacted states, with undercounting of 1.84 million and 1.15 million Hispanics, respectively. Florida (601,803 undercounted) and New York (454,095 undercounted) would be close to follow. Undercounting the Hispanic population would have economic effects and impact congressional representation.

An undercount of six million Hispanics could dramatically change the makeup of congressional districts in several states. Under the estimated undercount scenario discussed above:

  • California would be projected to lose 2 congressional seats;
  • Arizona would lose its projected gain of one seat;
  • Montana could gain an additional seat; and
  • Alabama, Minnesota, and Ohio could avoid their projected loss of a seat.

The potential economic impacts of adding the citizenship question are substantial. Lower Hispanic response rates related to citizenship will drive up the cost of doing the census, as the U.S. Census Bureau will make multiple attempts at a series of follow-up contacts and in-person interviews to reach this population.

Hundreds of billions of dollars in census supported federal programs are also at risk of being misappropriated. Half of the nation’s largest federal programs are calculated using state or regional per-capita income to allocate funds. An undercount will not change the amount of funds, rather the distribution of funds will be allocated incorrectly. One particularly vulnerable program is Medicaid. In Texas, an undercount could cost the state an estimated $378 million in annual Medicaid funds, whereas Illinois would gain over $9 million in annual Medicaid funds. California would see significant reductions in WIC funds, estimated at $10.6 million annually.

Census data is arguably the most powerful tool for local, state, and regional governments to make accurate decisions affecting budgeting, disaster response, land-use and transportation planning, measuring environmental and economic impacts, and more. So, the question remains, can the United States withstand a decade of inaccurate population data?

Many state and local governments have voiced serious concern over the inclusion of a citizenship question and subsequent undercount. Regional councils are encouraged to reach out to their members of Congress and share how undercounting could impact their region for the next ten years. Regional councils are also encouraged to continue educating their constituents virtually and in person (though Complete Count Committee meetings and outreach, public service announcements, social media, etc.) on why it is important that they participate in the upcoming 2020 census.

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