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Former Census Director: Citizenship Question To Hurt 2020 Accuracy


We're just over halfway through 2019, which means we are that much closer to 2020 and the once-in-a-decade census required by the U.S. Constitution. And President Trump is still pushing for one more question despite the Supreme Court's decision to block it. He said this yesterday.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're doing everything. We're finding out everything about everybody. Think of it. $15 to $20 billion, and you're not allowed to ask them are you a citizen.

MARTIN: Critics say that the question - are you a citizen of the United States? - seems simple enough, but it actually isn't. They say it will likely lead to less participation, particularly among immigrants and perhaps other minorities. And some critics go even further and have gone to court, saying that's exactly the reason the president and his allies want it.

Kenneth Prewitt knows this issue well. He was the director of the 2000 census. In January, he and five other former census directors sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, to say that adding the citizenship question would likely hurt the accuracy of the census. And Kenneth Prewitt is with us now. Professor Prewitt, thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: So as we mentioned, the Trump administration is still trying to find a way to add this question to the census. We understand that the Census Bureau has reportedly already begun printing copies of the census. So, as somebody who's actually overseen this whole process, is this even logistically possible at this point?

PREWITT: Yes, it's logistically possible at an enormous cost - and that budget, of course, hasn't been discussed yet - and it's logistically possible up to a point. It's hard to say exactly what we're talking about, whether what would be happening would be an addendum, whether it would be a new printing on the questionnaire. The printing process, by the way, is huge. Some 2 billion pieces of paper have to be printed before the census mailings start out in early March.

So, yes, it's possible - the enormous investment of money and the possibility of scrambling other things that go on the census. There are dozens of moving parts in the census, not just getting the questionnaire in the hands of the public.

MARTIN: Would you talk a little bit more for people who still don't understand this issue why it is that a question like that could suppress people's willingness to participate?

PREWITT: The current environment in the United States is one of mistrust of government - having nothing to do with the census - and also anxiety about privacy - again, having nothing to do with the census, having to do with the Facebook revelations and so forth and so on. So it's a setting right now - a political setting in which it's kind of very hard to do this job. There's only one definition of a good census, and that's one that counts everyone, correctly, only once and only in the right place. That's what makes for good census.

MARTIN: Is it possible - forgive me for asking you to speculate. Is it possible the damage is already done just by hearing all this discussion around it?

PREWITT: I think a lot of damage has been done. And whether the question is put on or not put on, it'll be very hard to erase that damage. It's in effect. I hate to say this, but it is being described as if it's a tool of partisan interests, whether on the Republican side or the Democratic side. The census has never been part of the partisan process. And once you sort of turn it into something that political parties do for their own interest, then you have done really long-term damage, not just damage to this census but long-term damage.

MARTIN: You earlier raised the question of trust. In 2000, the year 2000, when you were census director, you issued an apology on behalf of the agency for the way that the Census Bureau used the 1940 census data to help round up hundreds of thousands of people of Japanese descent living in the United States. And, at the time, you wrote, quote, "census tabulations were directly implicated in the denial of civil rights to citizens of the United States who happened also to be of Japanese ancestry," unquote. I wonder if that - well, number one, does that inform how you think about the citizenship question? And do you think that other people have a similar scenario in mind?

PREWITT: The remarkable thing about what happened in 1942, basically, by using 1940 census data with the roundup of the Japanese Americans on the West Coast is that we're still talking about it 70 years later. Every census that comes along - once again, the Japanese case gets brought to the surface. And the argument always is you can't trust the Census Bureau. Look what they did back in 1940. So, yes, it cast a very long dark shadow. This is going to be a census as it's shaping up right now, which will leave a partisan marker on the census I think for a very long time.

MARTIN: You know, one little detail that I learned from the letter that you and the other former directors wrote is that Wilbur Ross, who's the Cabinet secretary of Commerce, under whose authority the census operates - he actually worked for you, that you were his crew leader in 1960. He was an enumerator. And I saw that in a footnote of your letter.

PREWITT: That is true.

MARTIN: That is a funny little detail.

PREWITT: It is a quirk (laughter). It's a quirk. And I wish I had trained him better back in 1960. I actually think Wilbur Ross really gets - when he was doing his own hearings to be confirmed, he said he really liked the census and believed in it. And I believed him. I do think he got caught up in a political process that sooner or later led to sort of misleading the Congress in sworn testimony. We now know that. And I just sort of think it's too bad that that's the way it's played out for him.

MARTIN: If the census is inaccurate, what effect does it have?

PREWITT: Well, if there's a differential undercount, that is, some groups are amiss at higher rates and other groups or some regions, geographic areas are amiss at higher levels in other regions, the amount of money that is tied to census results is in the billions. The amount of that money does not change. Only its allocation changes. So a state or demographic group which is undercounted in the census will get less than its fair share. And, by definition, those which were totally counted at 100% they will get part of an unfair share because they're getting the money that's left over from the people that were not counted.

So that's a big consequence because you're talking about health care. You're talking about transportation systems. You're talking about disaster preparedness. A large number of things which get federal support are allocated on the basis of the fundamental census count.

MARTIN: Is this fixable? Have you observed whether trust having been broken in something like this - is it possible to restore it?

PREWITT: There are going to be two censuses in effect - one of which is a huge outpouring of what we call complete count committees, of efforts on advocacy groups, of mayors, of heads of Chamber of Commerce - a very large network of people are going to try to make this a good census because they understand the value of it. The other thing that's going to be going on is this partisan fight, probably down to the wire, not to April 1 but to December 31 when you have to turn the data in. There will be arguments at that time that the census isn't good enough to use.

So there's a process in which it's going to be very enthusiastic. Contribute to the census. Answer the question when you get it. And then, another process, which is going to be arguing in the background about it was wrong because it had the citizenship question or it was wrong because it did not have it. And that argument will not go away no matter what the answer is.

MARTIN: That's Kenneth Prewitt. He was the director of the 2000 census. He's currently Carnegie professor of Public Affairs at Columbia University. Professor Prewitt, thank you so much for talking with us.

PREWITT: Certainly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.