Brief from UWM scholars part of census case before US Supreme Court

Adding a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. census would mark the first time in U.S. history that such a question would be included for all people, according to research by a group of historians and social scientists who have submitted “friend of the court” brief to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On April 23, the high court heard arguments in the case as it reviewed a lower court’s ruling in favor of states suing the U.S. Departments of Justice and Commerce to block addition of the question. The administration claims that adding the question amounts to a “reinstatement” of a citizenship question that has appeared on the census in the past.

Not so, say authors of the brief, which include historians Margo Anderson and Rachel Buff from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Margo Anderson

“A cursory review of old census forms may lead you to believe that a citizenship question has appeared on the form used for the constitutionally required head count in the past,” said Anderson. “But a closer look at those forms reveals big differences between those questions and what Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has mandated.”

The Census Bureau is housed within the Department of Commerce.

Since 1790, the census has been taken once a decade to get a national population count used in deciding the distribution of congressional representation and national resources.

Over the course of history, the questions have changed, particularly to make sure that people understand what’s being asked and can answer easily, said Anderson, who specializes in the history of the U.S. census.

The priority in the decennial census is to count everyone. That standard, said Anderson, requires making sure that they have in place procedures to advertise the census, reach hard-to-count populations, such as minorities and immigrants, and make sure people understand how important it is to respond.

Rachel Buff

In the past, the Census Bureau has rejected adding a citizenship question of everyone because it isn’t necessary to do so and the bureau has evidence that such a question would threaten the accuracy and reliability of the census.

An undercount puts many communities at risk for a reduced share of federal funding that is allocated by the census data – resources that are invested in infrastructure like hospitals, schools and roadways.

The administration is relying for its argument on the fact that since 1960, a citizenship question has been asked on the “long form” – which is sent to a relatively small sample of the whole. This long form, now called the American Community Survey, is the instrument the Census Bureau uses to gather more detailed demographic information.

TheDepartment of Justice also contends that citizenship was a question included in the whole census from 1890 to 1950. But Anderson said earlier census questions were worded differently, were asked only of the foreign-born, and were designed to measure immigrant assimilation.

The academic group collectively wrote the brief at the suggestion of members of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law. Besides Anderson and Buff, members include sociologist Andrew Beveridge at Queens College of the City University of New York, historian Morgan Kousser at the California Institute of Technology, historian Mae Ngai at Columbia University, and historian Steven Ruggles at the University of Minnesota.

The brief and court documents are available at the Supreme Court website.


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