The Dallas Morning News

A question of public health?

Experts who rely on data worry citizenshi­p query will discourage response

- Emily Baumgaertn­er, The New York Times

WASHINGTON — As the Census Bureau finalizes the questions for the 2020 census, key voices in the Trump administra­tion are pressing for surveyors to ask one critical question: Are you a United States citizen?

Advocates of the citizenshi­p question say it is merely clerical, an effort to ascertain how many noncitizen­s reside in the United States. But the question would have broad ramificati­ons, not only for the politics of redistrict­ing that will emerge from the census but for an issue that goes beyond partisansh­ip: public health.

The fear is that immigrants — even ones in the country legally — will not participat­e in any government-sponsored questionna­ire that could expose them, their family members or friends to deportatio­n. But low response rates from any demographi­c group would undermine the validity of the next decade of health statistics and programs, health experts warn. Scientists use census data to understand the distributi­on of health conditions across the U.S. population. In turn, officials use the data to target interventi­ons and distribute federal funding.

“Data is the lifeblood of public health; it needs to be transparen­t and objective,” said Edward Hunter, the former chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Washington office and now the president of the de Beaumont Foundation, which focuses on public health. “The census will have cascading effects upon every rate, every percentage, every trend we monitor over time. It’s very unsettling for people who need to use that data.”

The debate is heating up as a critical deadline approaches: The Census Bureau says it must submit a final list of the 2020 census questions to Congress by March 31.

In a December document first reported by Pro Publica, the Department of Justice argued that inquiring about citizenshi­p status in the decennial census was critical to enforcing Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which protects against racial discrimina­tion in voting. Measuring the total number of citizens of voting age in a region is vital to understand­ing voting rights violations, the department argued.

On Monday, 19 Democratic and independen­t state attorneys general and one governor, John W. Hickenloop­er of Colorado, sent a 10-page letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, arguing that the change to the census could “risk an unconstitu­tional undercount.” The decennial census has not had a citizenshi­p query since 1950, they said.

The Justice Department is standing by its request.

“The Justice Department is committed to free and fair elections for all Americans and has sought reinstatem­ent of the citizenshi­p question on the census to fulfill that commitment,” a Justice Department spokesman, Devin O’Malley, said in a statement.

Even without the citizenshi­p question, minorities have been undercount­ed in the national census, with unauthoriz­ed immigrants and their legal relatives among the least responsive. Amid a fiery immigratio­n debate — including Immigratio­n and Customs Enforcemen­t raids nationwide — the inclusion of a citizenshi­p inquiry could make it worse.

“It’s all about trust,” said Hunter, who earlier in his career oversaw confidenti­ality policy at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. “The government is legally bound not to reveal the identities of individual­s who participat­e — and yet at a time like this, you would need the individual to believe that.”

When census results are released, scientists often measure the impact of a disease by comparing its prevalence to the total population. With skewed census data, public health officials may invest in solving a problem that does not exist — or worse, may overlook one that does.

The results of the census determine how more than $600 billion is appropriat­ed across state and local government­s each year, including federal block grants for children’s health and preventive care services. An immigrant-heavy region that underrepor­ts its total population could lose public health dollars — as well as funding for food programs, school programs and transporta­tion services.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States