The Indy 500: Asking about citizenship on the 2020 census is a bad idea

A quarter of Coloradans are already hard to count. The question will make it harder.

United States 2020 census form. Image via Getty Images.
United States 2020 census form. (Image via Getty Images).

Here’s an unfun fact: During the 2010 census, 18,000 Colorado children, newborn to 4 years old, went uncounted. I hear this number from Rosemary Rodriguez, the one-woman whirlwind who was once former Denver clerk and recorder, Denver city councilwoman, Denver Public Schools board member and chair of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. She’s now running a census-engagement project called “Together We Count.”

“How do you know it was 18,000?” I ask her.

“We can compare census data to birth records,” Rodriguez says. (It’s complicated and the undercount of children, primarily black and Hispanic children, is a national problem I didn’t even know existed.)

The number, she says, is “scary.”

“This is not just a one-year undercount,” she continues. “This provides our baseline data for 10 years. It affects how we plan for schools, for food benefits, for school lunches, for any number of programs.”

That number, to be more precise, is used by about 55 different federal programs that distributed more than $13 billion in federal dollars to Colorado in fiscal year 2016 alone. Communities in which babies and toddlers were undercounted were deprived of their fair share of federal funds.

Children are among what the Census Bureau considers the “hard-to-count” population, which also includes immigrants and refugees, lower-income households, limited English speakers and elders. These households tend to be more transient, are less comfortable with the language, distrustful in general of government, and some worry about possible deportation or separation from their children.

In all, according to an analysis published earlier this year by Esther Turcios and Abbey Pizel of the Colorado Fiscal Institute, 1.5 million Coloradans, about one-quarter of the state’s population, is considered hard to count. That number is based upon the percentage of people who did not mail back their census questionnaires. It doesn’t mean they weren’t counted. The Census Bureau sends out people to conduct in-person questioning of nonresponders.

In Saguache County, one of Colorado’s  poorest, for example, the return rate for the 2010 census was 56%, at least 20 percentage points below Colorado as a whole, though some measurements peg Colorado’s return rate as low at 72 percent. Nationally, it was 74 percent in 2010.

It’s in this context, that of uncounted children and hard-to-reach residents and mistrust of government, that Rodriguez and others read with sinking hearts earlier this week that the U.S. Supreme Court appears to be leaning toward allowing the Trump administration to ask 2020 census respondents whether they are U.S. citizens.

To include a citizenship question, Rodriguez and others say, is to further discourage participation in a basic function of democracy. It is to jeopardize needed federal dollars. It is to see the possibility of Colorado gaining another seat in Congress — and with it another national elector — evaporate. The administration itself acknowledges the question could lead to an undercount of 6.5 million people nationwide.

“The ripple effects are tremendous,” Rodriguez says.  

The question of citizenship cannot be separated from the context of the times, from the administration’s divisive rhetoric on immigrants and refugees, its hardline approach on immigration and a political climate in which any number of litmus tests have been set up to sort who belongs from who does not.

As Turcios puts it: “There is a lot to be said about what fear alone has done to communities and the damage it has done, whether the question makes it into the census or not.”

As the Supreme Court mulls its decision, lawmakers, Democrat and Republican, are moving a bill creating a multi-million-dollar grant program  to inform hard-to-count communities about the 2020 census.

As the Supreme Court deliberates, Rodriguez takes her show on the road, speaking to health clinics and parent organizations and rural philanthropists, to whomever will listen. Citizenship question or not, the first 2020 census materials go out next March and the stakes are too high to wait.

Tina was a city columnist for the late great Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post. She left Denver for Richmond, Virginia in 2012 and learned the joys of news editing at the city’s alternative newspaper, Style Weekly, and its premiere city mag, Richmond Magazine. She was also a staff writer for the Washington Post and its Storyline public policy/narrative journalism project. She has national recognition for her reporting on immigration, education and urban poverty. Tina lives in Fort Collins with her husband and two kids. She’s a native New Mexican and prefers red over green.