The Census Under Attack
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Law and Politics

The Census Under Attack

Importance of the count


  • The U.S. census1 is 7 basic questions for citizens to answer and submit. It is constitutionally mandated to happen every 10 years.2

  • The census also includes the American Community Survey (ACS)16, which is an extension of the basic 7 questions. It includes about 60 questions that are protected under law.4

  • The census is overseen by the U.S. Census Bureau.

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  • The Department of Justice (DOJ) proposed including a citizenship question within the next 2020 census.5 8 
  • This caused more than two dozen states to file a lawsuit6 to remove the question. 7
  • The census has not asked all U.S. households about citizenship since 1950.10 11



The count "underpin[s] government programs."9 This helps the government make critical decisions like where to place schools, how to staff veterans' hospitals, and how to emergency plan for every town and city in the country.3 It also helps the government reapportion seats for the House of Representatives, direct funding for public health programs, public education, and transportation networks.25 


If not completed properly, or an undercount occurs, a lack of funding for essentials in a community could occur.


Voting Rights Act

The DOJ says it needs a better count of voting-age citizens in order to enforce against racial discrimination. Specifically, the DOJ stated it needs the data to help enforce the Voting Rights Act.17 



American Community Survey

The ACS already includes a question about citizenship.19 Unfortunately, the American Community Survey reaches only 2% of the population,18 so including it in the census could help reach more Americans.



Policy decisions

Knowing how many undocumented individuals are in the country could help inform government decisions, including funding and appropriations.



The U.S. Census Bureau previously found negative effects on participation when a question of citizenship was included in the count.20 24 Since the question has not been included for decades, many believe the question will discourage non-citizens and communities of color from submitting.23



Bi-partisan support

Both Republicans and Democrats have cautioned against the question, as they are worried about undercounting.21 



Shady reasons

Some believe the response to the question will be used to help other efforts not related to voting. For example, in 2004, the Census Bureau gave the Department of Homeland Security specific information on where Arab-Americans lived. 22

“[imagine] The Veteran’s Administration wants to put a new hospital where it can serve elderly veterans. To do so, it needs measures of age and of veteran status that are accurate. A significant undercount puts the hospital in the wrong town. A poor-quality Census means policies that miss their mark.”16 

-Kenneth Prewitt, former director of the Census Bureau


  • After the Trump administration announced the decision, the Census Bureau director, John Thompson, stepped down.

  • The Democratic National Convention (DNC) filed a subpoena to force the Bureau to release internal documents about the decision to add.12

  • June 8, 2017: Census Bureau released those internal documents, which revealed internal warnings about including the citizenship question.24 There are no current plans to remove the question. 

  • Civil rights groups are getting in the fight.13



  • Many are threatening to skip the 2020 census. Read more about how those individuals may still be counted.

  • The 2020 census to count same-sex couples for the first time.15

  • With advancements in technology, how can we fix the possibility of an undercount?

  • George Washington complained about undercounting on the 1790 Census.14

Key Vocabulary