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Citizenship question undermines census data, UB sociologist warns

U.S. census form.


Published November 13, 2018 This content is archived.

headshot of Robert Adelman.
“The decennial census is not — and was never intended to be — a citizen count. It was intended to be an accurate count of the U.S. population. ”
Robert Adelman, associate professor and chair
Department of Sociology

Including a citizenship question as part of the 2020 decennial census would most likely undercut the accuracy of determining the U.S. population and risks politicizing and limiting the effectiveness of an instrument critical to a well-functioning representative democracy, according to a UB sociologist.

“Any social scientist who wants to collect quality data knows that to add this question — regardless of how the data will be used — is to contribute inaccuracy into the U.S. Census Bureau’s measurement of the country’s population in 2020,” says Robert Adelman, associate professor and chair of the Department of Sociology, who has written an article on census data for the latest issue of the journal City & Community.

A downloadable document of proposed questions for the 2020 census on the Census Bureau’s website states:

  • Knowing how many people reside in the community and how many of those people are citizens, in combination with other information, provides the statistical information that helps the government enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and its protections against discrimination in voting.
  • Knowing how many citizens and noncitizens live in the United States, in combination with other information, is of interest to researchers, advocacy groups, and policymakers.

“But the decennial census is not — and was never intended to be — a citizen count. It was intended to be an accurate count of the U.S. population, and adding a citizenship question to the census would likely discourage participation from documented and undocumented migrants who might not respond to the census form,” says Adelman, an urban sociologist and expert on the patterns, trends and processes related to immigration.

“In addition, the question may be politically motivated. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has now admitted to discussing the questions with Stephen Bannon, a former White House strategist.”

Measuring the country’s population was so critical to the formation of the republic that the founders wrote the census requirement, necessary for determining Congressional representation, into Article I Section 2 of the Constitution, placing the provision ahead of details on the composition of the Senate or mention of the Office of the President.

For Adelman, the matter of collecting data through the census has become a matter that’s as much about politics as it is social science.

“The citizenship question is especially problematic for me because it’s being proposed by an anti-immigrant administration and my recent work with colleagues on the relationship between immigration and crime across metropolitan areas underscores the political nature of such issues,” he says.

Lawsuits, meantime, have been filed around the country, with the first trial on the citizenship question currently underway in New York City.

“We already ask about citizenship on the American Community Survey, so the question is unnecessary as part of the census,” says Adelman. “Including it will likely discourage participation and create a ripple effect of problems that will contribute to less accurate counts of the population.”


Should we not ask any question to which someone might feel embarrassed by their answer? Should we not ask questions because those who violated our laws might not like the question?

Nonsense. We should have the information about how many non-citizens are in our country. If we had, and had enforced our immigration laws, we would not need to ask the citizenship question. We would already have these data, but we haven't, so we should ask the question.

Immigration is a big issue and we should make informed decisions about it, but that requires information.

James Campbell