SCOTUS Is Right on the Census Citizenship Question, But For the Wrong Reasons
The US Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the Trump administration cannot include a question about citizenship in the 2020 census form.
In response to efforts to add a census question asking respondents about citizenship, several large US states sued the administration, claiming the question would lead to under-reporting of the true number of residents in each state.
The court did not rule that the question could not be used under any circumstances, however.
The court's majority said the government has the right to ask a citizenship question, but that it needs to properly justify changing the longstanding practice of the Census Department. The Trump administration's justification was "contrived," Roberts wrote, and did not appear to be the genuine reason for the change, possibly implying that the real reason was political.
The case, Department of Commerce et al v. New York et al, was decided by a 5-4 majority, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the four so-called liberal judges.
The Census Is Too Intrusive
The effect of the ruling is a good one: it limits the number of questions on the census form, and thus the amount of personal information collected by census takers. Nevertheless, the ruling offers no real relief from a long-standing tradition of the US government using the decennial census to collect unnecessary data nowhere mandated by the US constitutions census provisions.1
Designed initially as simply a means of apportioning members of congress and drawing congressional districts, the US census has morphed into a program designed to collect data that can help the US government justify and plan a wide array of government programs and initiatives.
The very earliest census forms don't collect much information beyond the total number of people, whether they are male or female, how old they are, and whether or not they are slaves.
Yet, by the 1870 census, the government was asking questions about birthplace and citizenship. Questions about occupation, literacy, and disability began even before then. In 1860, it was apparently essential for the federal government to know if a person was "deaf and dumb, blind insane, idiotic, pauper, or convict."
The Citizenship Question
The fact that citizenship questions began is 1870 is significant. Prior to the 1870s, it was widely believed that the regulation of immigration was not a responsibility of the federal governments. Some state governments — especially New York and Massachusetts — enacted immigration restrictions in the mid nineteenth century. But both Congress and the Supreme court balked at the idea of imposing federal limits on migrants.
[RELATED: " American Immigration Policy 160 Years Ago " by Ryan McMaken]
This changed with sweeping new federal immigration laws passed in 1882.
At roughly the same time, federal policymakers started instructing the census takers to keep track of matters related to birthplace, immigration, and citizenship.
As the role of government expanded even further, more questions were added. These included questions on employment, housing, ethnic group, and more.
In the 1920s, Herbert Hoover, who support expanding the statistical-date role of the census bureau, became head of the U.S. Commerce Department. Hoover used his position to push for more data collection. Not surprisingly, the role of census data expanded even more with the New Deal.
In other words, policymakers needed more and more statistical information to justify a rising tide of new federal programs, and to claim that resources were being distributed equitably and rationally.
Opposition to Census Data Collection
Recognizing this close connection between government planning and census data — as well as potential violations of privacy — some political activists and policymakers have encouraged refusing to answer census questions.
For example, at the time of the 2000 census, both Senate Majority leader Trent Lott and presidential candidate George W. Bush advised Americans not to answer questions "they believed invaded their privacy." That may have been good advice, especially since the Census bureau recently admitted it failed to protect the personal data collected on 100 million Americans.
The fact both Lott and Bush were republican policymakers is not a coincidence. At the time, there was a significant — albeit not overwhelming — movement among the conservative grassroots that insisted Americans ought to refuse to answer census questions — whether on the short form or the new ACS long form — which went above and beyond number the population.
The movement now appears to have been turned on its head with Trump supporters now insisting it is entirely appropriate to use census questions for purposes other than counting US residents — and to require honest responses.
Meanwhile, those who sought to keep the citizenship question off the census form were, for the most part, among the people who insist a wide array of census-collected data is necessary to distribute hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer-funded handouts to targeted populations.
They're fine with asking lots of questions on the census. They're just opposed to a citizenship question. While these opponents of the citizenship question claim to be motivated by obtaining an accurate count, the true reason is likely political: they don't want citizenship to become a political football in re-districting debates or debates over the size and scope of the non-citizen resident population.
That's an understandable position, but it would be best if opponents of the citizenship question were more honest about their motivations.
As it is, today's SCOTUS ruling has implications for partisan politics. But it does little to rein in the census bureau or return the decennial census to its originally intended purposes.
- 1. Not that a constitutional mandate would make additional questions desirable or moral. Government data collection has always been an important tool in augmenting government power. A constitutional provision authorizing data collection does not change this reality.